Posts Tagged ‘Rugby Championship 2016’

This was a tournament that ultimately saw New Zealand emerge as the true powerhouse of International Rugby with few if any likely to be able to challenge them.  Australia were lucky to carve out a second place finish which still left them light years behind their rivals across the Tasman Straits and with a mountain of work to get through if they are to have a successful end of year tour in Europe.  Argentina meanwhile continued to provide plenty of excitement but when it was all said and done they had little to show for their efforts as they emerged as holders of the wooden spoon.  South Africa can count themselves lucky not to finish in last place, but that is about as far as it goes as we were forced to bear witness to the sad decline of this once proud rugby nation during the course of the tournament and it was painful viewing at times.

Instead of our usual match commentary we’ll just highlight what struck us about the four participants in the tournament in the final weekend’s action and what it means going forward.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 15/New Zealand 57
Durban

There is no denying that from a South African perspective this was an exceptionally painful game to witness.  A team which has been in decline since the World Cup finally imploded against the world’s best in front of a stunned home crowd.  As South Africa now face a challenging European end of year tour in a few weeks time the sense of despondency and concerns that yet more humiliation is in the making are palpable.  South African rugby has struggled in the last two years but is now in crisis and appears in a state of free fall.  For New Zealand their complete annihilation of the Springboks in two Tests means that a once now proud and competitive rivalry is now well and truly dead.  While it is likely that the All Blacks will always respect their South African counterparts out of a reverence to history, there is now little if anything to fear for New Zealand from a Springbok challenge.

The All Blacks by comparison have shown that they are without equal in the rugby world and their end of year tour to Europe is unlikely to change that. While they won’t get to play the Northern Hemisphere’s strongest side and Six Nations Champions England next month – Ireland and Italy will stand little chance of denying New Zealand their longest consecutive winning streak in history.

While New Zealand may not necessarily have started this match in top form, and at times in the first 20 minutes seemed far more error-prone than we are used to seeing, once they scored their opening try the floodgates simply opened.  In the second half there was no lack of composure or execution as the All Blacks ran in an unanswered seven tries, dominated possession and were quite simply the only team on the pitch.  South Africa were nowhere to be seen.

As mentioned above this was exceptionally painful viewing from a South African perspective.  Sure New Zealand are the best team in the world right now by a country mile but we have always expected to see Springbok sides be at least competitive in meetings between the two sides.  No such luck last Saturday in Durban.  The second half in particular was a horror show for South Africa.  They have run out of excuses and the next few months, after what is surely going to be a very painful and at times humiliating trip to Europe, are going to be uncomfortable for players and management.  Missed tackles, a consistent lack of any kind of attacking game, poor execution and a general lack of cohesion and structure to what was essentially a makeshift side meant that the Springboks never stood a chance.  In the second half it was clear from the players’ facial expressions that they had lost the plot and were simply longing for the referee’s final whistle to put them out of their misery.  There is nothing to say about this performance from one of the giants of the game in days gone by, other than that it was an abject failure from a player and coaches point of view for South Africa.

New Zealand will move on from this match with the kind of confidence that a 10 game winning streak produces and as they prepare to put Australia to the sword once more on home soil on the hallowed ground of Eden Park in Auckland, it is going to take a remarkable and superhuman Irish effort to derail the All Black express in Chicago on November 5th.

For South Africa a long period of reflection and soul-searching lies ahead as they desperately seek to put a stop to the rot that is sapping the Springboks of their once proud legacy.  While we would like to have a sense of optimism we can’t help feeling it is only going to get much worse before it gets better and don’t expect any immediate improvements for a while. This is a team of professionals being managed and coached by amateurs with an unhealthy dose of political interference. Until this gets addressed which is unlikely to be any time soon, the Springboks misery looks set to continue. Our heart goes out to South Africa and Springbok supporters everywhere and we can only hope that by the time the next World Cup comes around South Africa will start to rise once more from the ashes!

Argentina vs Australia
Final Score – Argentina 21/Australia 33
Twickenham

The stats for this match once more provide a glaring insight into the Pumas continuing difficulties.  Argentina dominated the second half with over 80% of the territory and possession and yet somehow were outscored by Australia, albeit by a narrow margin. Argentina’s undoing was once again a lack of concentration coupled to poor execution at critical times which allowed Australia to turn Argentinian mistakes into Australian opportunities which they, unlike the Pumas, were able to turn into points on the board. If you are a Pumas supporter by the end of this tournament you must have been tearing your hair out with frustration as once again Argentina let a match slip away from them, despite at times showcasing some outstanding skills, passion and committment.  The Pumas have entertained us all tournament but sadly failed to deliver the knockout blows and consistency they so desperately need to master.  Their skill level is not in question but, as it has been since their first foray in the Rugby Championship back in 2012, their finishing and ability to close out big games still is!

For Australia another opportunistic win will do their confidence no harm, but many of the problems we have seen all year continue to plague the Wallabies.  They may have developed a solid attacking game and some very gifted backs in the shape of centre Samu Kerevi and wingers Reece Hodge and Dane Haylett-Petty but apart from that there has not been too much to get excited about in Australia’s overall performance in the tournament, despite against all odds coming a distant second behind New Zealand. Bernard Foley has adapted well to playing in the centre outside Quade Cooper at fly half and has often been there to save Australia’s bacon on more than one occasion. Scrum half Will Genia has made a welcome and rather spectacular return to the Wallaby fold, though we can’t really say the same of his half back partner Quade Cooper at fly half.  While we can’t really fault Cooper as in days gone by, he also never really did anything that stood out in terms of a significant contribution to Australia’s campaign. Meanwhile the Wallabies’ forward play is still woefully inaccurate and poorly disciplined and up against powerful forward units like England, Wales and Ireland next month Australia could be in for a torrid time of it. Furthermore their discipline especially in the forwards is an ongoing bad joke.

Australia got themselves into this match from the outset by once more capitalizing on a lack of concentration by Argentina.  Argentina would get themselves back into the game but throughout the match a lack of execution and concentration would continue to cost them dearly and we had to admit that Pumas scrum half Martin Landajo was having an uncharacteristically poor opening twenty minutes and struggled to put together quality passes as well as battling to hold onto the ball under pressure.  Fortunately he recovered as the match wore on but this relatively poor opening meant that just like previous matches Argentina were constantly having to play catch up rugby.  This was not helped by the Pumas not having standout flyhalf Nicolas Sanchez available as he was sidelined with injury.  Although his replacement Santiago González Iglesias improved as the match wore on, his woeful kicking attempts in the first half meant that Argentina left at least 15 points behind.  We can only wonder how the tables could have been different if Argentina had started the match with a dominant lead.

In the end it wasn’t to be, and the match inexorably slipped away from a spirited Argentinian side to the advantage of a slightly more structured Wallaby team.  Despite Australia’s rather woeful forward performance we must say we like the looks of newcomer lock Adam Coleman who has got consistently better with each outing for the Wallabies and would definitely appear to be a bright star in the making for Australia.  Still Australia really need to get a handle on their poor discipline if they are really going to be able to challenge England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and France next month. As for the shenanigans involving Wallaby scrum half Nick Phipps and the Argentine medic, enough has been said already, though we can’t help feeling that despite the fact that the medic had no business being there in the first place, Phipps emotional immaturity is a huge liability for the Wallabies and one they could well do without in November.

For the Pumas we feel that they have a potentially rewarding November tour ahead of them, and while England may be a bridge too far, the match ups with Scotland and Wales are surely ones where Argentina has a shot at taking the honors. Still we have been promising big things in terms of results from Argentina all year, so we are reluctant to talk them up anymore at this stage.  They surely know what they have to do to fix their problems despite their considerable talent and promise, so to quote an old saying ‘the proof of the pudding will be in the eating’ and we will say nothing more on that front for now!

Endnote

The good people at Rugby Montages hadn’t done a video wrap up of the final round of the Rugby Championship at the time we put this out, so we left you with their effort at showcasing one of the players of the tournament – All Black Ben Smith as an example of just how good the player base is in New Zealand and why a certain group of gentlemen in black jerseys are so unstoppable right now! However since going to press Rugby Montages have produced another of their superb video summaries of the final round of the Championship so we’ve updated this post accordingly – enjoy!

The All Black juggernaut of 2016 continued to roll on unopposed in Argentina this past weekend but once more it was put to the Test by a resurgent Puma side in the second half.  We said all along that New Zealand needed to stamp their authority quickly in the first half as Argentina were likely to make some serious inroads against them in the second half if the scores were close like they were in the first Test at half time.  New Zealand had a blinding start but in doing so appeared to run out of steam in the second half as Argentina became the dominant side despite trailing the All Blacks by an impossible margin.  Nevertheless, from the New Zealand point of view the job was done by the half time whistle.  Argentina however can still take heart from the fact that they never gave up and their second half performance was one to be proud of as they had the All Blacks under the most intense pressure for the full forty minutes.  Argentina may have once more emerged the losing side, but gained yet another cornerstone in terms of how the world’s best team, New Zealand, has come to regard the Pumas as competitors of the highest order.  Meanwhile in South Africa, a makeshift Springbok team defied the form books and managed to eke out a scrappy win against an Australian side that after two solid efforts in the preceding matches at home suddenly seemed to slip back into reverse gear on the road.  The Springboks came away with a much-needed win, but as many pointed out, the way in which it was executed left little to celebrate as they prepare to face the All Blacks this weekend.  Australia will need to go back to the drawing board as once more their discipline and handling skills fell to pieces and they were coming off second best in the forward battles, a major concern when you are going up next against a team capable of the kind of physicality and offloading ability that Argentina have been putting on display in this tournament.

South Africa vs New Zealand
Final Score – South Africa 18/Australia 10
Pretoria

Show a bit of character by some of your key players, throw in one of the most experienced kicking boots in Test Rugby and add a dash of luck and you emerge with in this case a Springbok victory in Pretoria.  It never looked structured, rarely had any semblance of any kind of attacking strategy, but the Springbok performance last Saturday in Pretoria did show some real grit and character from a few key players when it was needed most.  There is little doubt that this performance will cause their final opponents in this year’s tournament, New Zealand, to lose much sleep between now and Saturday.  However, in a very difficult year, Saturday’s victory was important in taking some pressure off a South African side in crisis.  Australia meanwhile will need to look once more at how, despite dominating possession especially in the second half as they set up base camp in the Springbok 22, they would ultimately emerge scoreless in the final 40 minutes.  Once more under pressure, their Achilles Heel of poor discipline coupled to inexplicable handling errors despite the obvious talent of their players meant they would emerge empty-handed from 40 minutes of hard graft.

Despite South Africa playing with lots of intensity although not a great deal of structure, the opening minutes of this match still gave one the impression that Australia were going to be running proceedings for most of the afternoon.  Australia looked much more focused and clearly had an attacking plan that South Africa could only dream of. Nevertheless, South Africa were highly combative in defense and were managing to contain the threat of a formidable Australian back line particularly in the shape of Dane Haylett-Petty, Samu Kerevi and Reece Hodges.  We’ve always felt that the Wallaby scrum is a weak link and once more the Springbok front row of Captain and Hooker Adriaan Strauss alongside props Tendai Mtawarira and Vincent Koch were providing admirable service putting their Australian counterparts under all kinds of pressure which would only get worse as the match wore on.  We have to give the much maligned Springbok flanker Francois Louw some well deserved recognition as in this match he was outstanding both in defence and proved to be exceptionally difficult to contain in the loose, alongside his fellow flanker Teboho Mohoje.   Despite Mohoje’s poor performance in the first Test against Australia in the Championship, we feel that he has actually stood up and been counted and has been subjected to some rather unfair and slightly distasteful bias and criticism during the course of the tournament.  Adriaan Strauss however was the deserved man of the match as he led by example throughout the match and to be honest we feel he has received too much unjust criticism this tournament so it was nice to see his efforts recognized.  Strauss had a superb game even though sadly he was the often the only true attacking spark in the Springboks efforts in Pretoria.  Strauss made some superb carries with the ball that had he been supported would have actually meant the Springboks would have actually got some tries on the board as opposed to simply points from Morne Steyn’s exceptional boot.

South Africa would open the scoring first with a superb drop goal reminiscent of Springbok glory days of old from veteran fly half Morne Steyn.  The three pointer had been set up by some superb attacking play from South Africa’s forwards but this served to illustrate the fact that in terms of an attacking threat we would not see too much of South Africa’s back line in this match.  Australia would soon reply with a penalty kick of their own and then follow it up with a well worked try from prop Scott Sio. The Australian try started from a counter attack by Wallaby fullback Israel Folau deep in the Wallaby 22 and would show off the Wallabies ability to string together several phases of quality ball, something which the Springboks were rarely able to emulate.

Some poor discipline by Australia would see them squander their lead and South Africa end the first half in charge at 12-10 after a reckless challenge on Springbok winger Bryan Habana by Wallaby Israel Folau resulting in the Australian fullback being sent to the bin. South Africa were able to gain the lead through a Morne Steyn penalty kick which saw the home side in charge at half time but only just.

The next forty minutes of the second half would see little in terms of either side really gain the ascendancy, even though Australia were constantly asking questions of the South African defence.  That South Africa held out as well as they did and managed to keep the Australians scoreless for the final forty minutes does show some serious character, especially given that half of the team was playing out of position due to injuries and a heavily forward weighted bench.  This meant that the exceptional flanker Jaco Kriel ended up playing left wing for the final quarter of the match.  Nevertheless this is an issue with Coaching selections and the players should take the credit they deserve for holding out as well as they did in the face of a concerted Wallaby assault.  While it lacked in terms of spectacle at times it was still a courageous and valiant performance that demonstrated that there is still plenty of character left in this troubled Springbok side.

Morne Steyn’s kicking would keep South Africa in touch and repeated errors and lapses in discipline would see the Australians constantly being shunted back to their own 22 and have to start all over again.  On the Highveld at altitude you can only do this for so long before fatigue starts to set in despite the fresh legs on the bench.  As a result the errors started to mount and the Wallabies cohesion and discipline started a seemingly inevitable downward slide.  Morne Steyn would finish the match in the same vein as he started by slotting another perfectly timed drop goal to seal Australia’s fate and leave Springbok fans with something to cheer about once more.

This was not a great advertisement for Test rugby and especially the Southern Hemisphere.  Messy and at times frantic from both sides, South Africa were lucky to get a much-needed win while Australia will wonder how they let a match that should have been theirs for the taking completely slip away from them.  This Springbok performance will not enable them to beat New Zealand this Saturday and will raise more questions than answers as they prepare for a challenging tour to Europe in November.  Australia know that they have the ability but still seem to lack the execution and discipline needed when it matters most.  In a difficult rematch with Argentina in a neutral ground for both sides at Twickenham next Saturday, Australia will need to find the rhythm we saw glimpses of in Rounds 3 and 4 of the tournament.  In short the jury is still very much out for both sides!

Argentina vs New Zealand
Final Score – Argentina 17/New Zealand 36
Buenos Aires

We said leading up to this match that New Zealand could ill afford to allow Argentina to stay close to them in the first forty minutes.  While few doubted, ourselves included, that New Zealand would lose the match, we felt that the scoreline would not be as emphatic as the first time these two sides met in the tournament.  In that sense we weren’t proven wrong. New Zealand knew that they had to establish a dominant lead in the first half as Argentina on home soil were likely to come back hard at them in the second half and if the scores were close it could end up being the banana peel that ended what so far has been the perfect season for the All Blacks.  Argentina showed once more that they are competitive to the last even though the ability to close out a game of this magnitude still eludes them.  Meanwhile for us, one of the standout players of the tournament, Pumas number eight Facundo Isa, once again made a massive statement of intent regarding the potential this young Pumas side has for the future.

Even though Argentina may have lost the first half by a significant margin it was only a torrid patch in the final four minutes of the half, that saw New Zealand score three relatively soft tries, which would ultimately put the match out of reach of the Pumas.  For the first thirty minutes Argentina were always in touch and hard at the heels of the All Blacks.  Had it not been for a mistake by South African referee Jaco Peyper in judging a knock on by the Pumas which instead had simply been the ball being ripped loose, the Argentinians through inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy would have had the first five pointer of the proceedings.  However, it was not to be and the All Blacks recognising the threat turned up the heat in no uncertain terms. Leading by a mere three points at the end of the first quarter the All Blacks decided to match the Pumas up front physically and repeatedly opted for scrums instead of shots at goal. Their perseverance paid off and it would be centre Anton Lienert-Brown who would get New Zealand’s first try of the match as he continued to impress in his first season in an All Black jersey after some superb groundwork from his fly half Beauden Barrett.

Argentinian fly half Nicolas Sanchez would finally get Argentina on the board just past the half hour mark with a much-needed three pointer, but despite some outstanding defending by Argentina which had denied the All Blacks several golden opportunities, the Pumas suddenly hit a purple patch and the most costly four minutes of their season.  New Zealand would score three tries in quick succession starting with winger Israel Dagg, followed by the incomparable Hooker Dane Coles and finally to add salt to the wound scrum half TJ Perenara, giving New Zealand a fairly unassailable lead at 29-3.  As the half time whistle blew a stunned Pumas side walked from the field desperately trying to understand how they had suddenly let the game get so dramatically out of reach, after having been so competitive for the majority of the first half.

The second half would open in much the same vein as the All Blacks sought to consolidate and build on a lead that would make it all but impossible for the Pumas to salvage the match. All Black centre Anton Lienert-Brown would once more make his presence felt as he would evade the Argentinian defence and provide his fullback Ben Smith with a perfectly timed offload putting his side ahead 36-3 with only just over half an hour remaining.  However, once more the Pumas refused to quit and  for the next thirty minutes it was all about the men in white and blue and a relentless assault on the All Black line. Their continued pressure and some outstanding work from Puma number eight Facundo Isa would see him crash over for Argentina’s first try.  New Zealand chose to take Argentina on at the scrums which was a bold move especially considering that in the final thirty minutes the All Blacks were playing for much of the time with 14 men as they were the recipients of two yellow cards.  Still as always the All Blacks were masters at playing the fringes and the eventual scrum battles were effective in winding down the clock as despite the fresh legs from both benches the two teams began to tire.  Despite this however it was Argentina in the driving seat and they were rewarded for their efforts by a fine try by fullback Joaquín Tuculet off a superb cross-field kick to the corner in the dying minutes of the match.  It was just reward for what had been a consistent effort in the second half from Argentina which in some way made up for the dreadful lapse in concentration by the Pumas in the first half which would ultimately hand the match to New Zealand on a silver plate.

Despite the scoreline it was a thrilling encounter between two exciting teams, even though the final score made it look much more one-sided.  New Zealand showed that their ability to determine the style of play required for any given match is second to none.  They needed to start hard and fast in this difficult encounter on the Pumas’ home turf to put it out of reach of their hosts by the end of the first forty minutes and that is exactly what they did. Argentina will continue to take heart in the fact that they once more showed up and made the All Blacks work hard even though the ultimate result may never really have been in doubt.  An encounter between these two teams is always one to savour whatever the scoreline and Saturday’s rumble in Buenos Aires was no exception.  We can’t help feeling that given the talent that is coming through the ranks in Argentina, despite the riches that New Zealand possess there will come a day before the next World Cup in Japan in 2019 where an Argentine side will run the All Blacks close by within five points and perhaps even knock the World Champions off their pedestal. It may still be a dream for the Pumas and their supporters but one which they seem to inch agonisingly closer to year by year!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action.  Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

We all know who will be lifting the trophy on October 8th, what we don’t know is how the rest of the table will look when all is said and done.  New Zealand have clearly been in a class of their own this year and the only question mark is whether or not they can complete the perfect season as they head out on the road for the rest of the year, barring a brief return to New Zealand at the end of October for the penultimate Bledisloe Cup match against Australia.  For the rest of the Rugby Championship competitors the battle for second place is heating up with Australia leading the charge.  Australia had a woeful start to 2016 but their last two matches have seen a gradual resurgence of the team as the rebuilding process since last year’s World Cup finally seems to be bringing rewards.  However, the big question mark remains as to whether or not they can now repeat their successes on the road as they will play no more matches on home soil for the rest of the year.  South Africa meanwhile seem to be catching the elevator to the basement as Australia pass them on the way up.  Woeful Springbok performances away from home in their last three matches have left many in South Africa calling for heads to roll.  As a result the pressure will all be on South Africa in Pretoria on Saturday.  Lastly, Argentina while showing enormous promise this tournament at times have rarely looked like they can close out big games.  With their last encounter on home soil before they too head out on the road for the autumn internationals, it is hoped that they can replicate their outstanding performance against the All Blacks in New Zealand and this time keep the scoreline that much closer.

South Africa vs Australia
Saturday, October 1st
Pretoria

Australia clearly look the more settled side going into this match.  Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika seems to have an idea of the kind of team he wants and how he wants them to play.  The same cannot be said of Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee as he cobbles together a Springbok squad that has left many, ourselves included, scratching their heads.  The Springbok team that will run onto the pitch at Loftus Versfeld on Saturday looks makeshift to say the least with a number of untried combinations and players who have not got much to offer in the form books.  In reality it is only in the tight five where Coetzee seems to be sticking with a semblance of order established during the course of the tournament.  The rest of the lineup if anything smacks of desperation.  South Africa are always a challenge when their backs are against the wall especially at home, but it would seem that this time around the wall they are being pushed up against is rather flimsy.

As already mentioned the one positive is that South Africa seem to be sticking with a forward platform that has served them relatively well this tournament.  The front row of Hooker and Captain Adriaan Strauss and prop Tendai Mtawarira have been reliable at least, and Vincent Koch for us is one of South Africa’s most exciting new forward talents.  Koch can be a real catalyst for getting quality ball in the tight forward exchanges and on home soil we are looking to see a big performance from the number 3.  For us the Australian front three of Stephen Moore, Sekope Kepu and Scott Sio is still the weak link in the chain, and we feel that the South African offering will have better structure and discipline giving the Springboks the edge here in this match.  In the second row, we also feel that the South African duo of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter-Steph du Toit bring more of an edge to South Africa’s lineout play and scrum stability than their Wallaby counterparts in the shape of Rob Simmons and Adam Coleman. However, we must say that we have been really impressed with Australia’s Adam Coleman in the Wallabies last two outings and he is a clear talent for the future. Expect to see plenty of sparks between him and South Africa’s Du Toit at lineout time. In the back row the battle swings dramatically back to Australia.  Australia’s Michael Hooper and Dean Mumm are more than a match for the lacklustre Francois Louw and Teboho Mohoje, with the South African pair having failed to impress all tournament.  Lastly shoring up the back row at number eight, there should be one of the more memorable contests of the match between South Africa’s exceptional Warren Whiteley and Australia’s impressive Sean McMahon.  We have been impressed with both players and McMahon is a growing force to be reckoned with for Australia and will take some stopping on Saturday.  However, we still give the nod here to South Africa’s Warren Whiteley.  For us Warren Whiteley embodies all the best qualities of the new generation of Springboks and consistently provides inspiration to the rest of his teammates.  On home soil we once more expect to see him at his best.

It is the half back pairing we really expect to see Australia outclass South Africa on Saturday.  Wallaby scrum half Will Genia has been one of the best players of the tournament and has consistently provided the attacking spark that Australia have struggled with in the first half of the year.  He is more than a match for South Africa’s inexperienced Rudy Paige and we expect to see South Africa pay dearly here on Saturday.  South Africa’s Morne Steyn has a wealth of experience to counter the mercurial form of his Australian counterpart fly half Quade Cooper.  As much as we are not fans of Cooper we have to grudgingly admit that he hasn’t played that badly in the Wallabies last two outings. However his ability to undo all his good work in the blink of an eye is still there for all to see as evidenced in the match against Argentina and his no arms tackle without the ball on his opposite number Nicolas Sanchez. However, on the basis of experience and Will Genia’s outstanding form at the moment we are handing this battle hands down to Australia.

In the backs, Australia once more will have the clear edge and a much more settled line up than South Africa.  We have seen little from South Africa’s centre partnership of Jesse Kriel and Juan de Jongh to get excited about, whereas the Australian duo of Samu Kerevi and Bernard Foley have attacking flair by the bucketload, and Foley like Genia has been the bedrock of Australia’s attacking platform this tournament.  On the wings we simply prefer the youth and energy of Australia’s Dane Haylett-Petty and Recce Hodges over the South Africa offering of Francois Hougaard and Bryan Habana despite the latter’s pedigree and experience.  Hodges and Haylett-Petty if given the right opportunities have some exceptional pace and Hodges has proved outstanding in defence as well as having a very handy boot.  Lastly at fullback, Patrick Lambie makes a welcome return to the Springbok jersey but not in his customary position of fly half. A quality player through and through, Lambie should bring some steady nerves to an often fraught encounter for the Springboks.  However, his lack of game time this year will be a major concern.  No such problem for his Australian counterpart Israel Folau. Still one of the best players under the high ball, if South Africa resort to a meaningless kicking game which they tend to do so often when under pressure, then Folau will make them pay dearly for it.  In short, in the battle of the backs we expect it to be all about Australia.

On the benches there is only one South African name to get excited about in the form of flanker Jaco Kriel, while Australia is able to boast the likes of Scott Fardy, Tevita Kuridrani and to a lesser extent Nick Phipps.  Although some may welcome the return of Willie le Roux for South Africa on the bench, his form has been so erratic in the last three years that we simply can’t share in the excitement.

We fully expect to see a more spirited performance from the Springboks in front of a home crowd.  However, if as we suspect this makeshift selection will struggle to click at times the crowd is likely to turn hostile very quickly adding another level of pressure that may erode the confidence that a beleaguered South African team are struggling to develop.  Australia are still a work in progress but for us they are finally starting to find a rhythm whereas the Springboks are still consulting a dictionary for the meaning of the word.  A spirited contest at times but one we ultimately expect to see Australia walk away with by 8 points!

Argentina vs New Zealand
Saturday, October 1st
Buenos Aires

While we don’t expect Argentina to derail the All Black express of 2016 in Buenos Aires on Saturday, we are certainly looking forward to watching them give it their very best shot. Although like many neutrals we have been left feeling frustrated by the Pumas in the this tournament as the final whistle blows, we’d be lying if we said we hadn’t enjoyed the ride. We are expecting more of the same on Saturday, with the added bonus that in front of a rapturous home crowd the Pumas will have that much more fire in their bellies.  New Zealand will know they are in for a tough and bruising encounter and after the Pumas heroics in Hamilton last month will be that much better prepared.  New Zealand are clearly relishing the challenge while at the same time using the calibre of a match against the Pumas to give some of their younger players another baptism of fire.

Up front we are very happy to see Hooker and inspirational Pumas Captain Agustin Creevy returned from injury.  Although the Pumas Captain hasn’t quite got the remarkable range of skills of his All Black counterpart the incomparable Dane Coles this should still be an epic tussle.  Ably supported by props Ramiro Herrera and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro, the Argentinian scrum will be a force to be reckoned with. However, we still give the battle to the accomplished All Black outfit of Owen Franks, Joe Moody and the ultimate X-factor Dane Coles.  As readers of this blog know we are huge fans of Dane Coles and can’t wait to see what set of skills he will show off in this match as he seems to add something new every game.  In the second rows a good contest will be on offer between Argentina’s Guido Petti who also makes a welcome return from injury and New Zealand’s Patrick Tuipulotu.  We give the nod here to Argentina as despite the presence of the All Blacks exceptional Brodie Retallick, we feel that the more established partnership of Argentina’s Matias Alemanno and Petti will rule the day here in the first sixty minutes of the match but once New Zealand’s Sam Whitelock comes off the bench the balance will swing back in the All Blacks favour. In the back rows it will be another titanic struggle between Argentina’s Javier Ortega Desio who impressed against the Wallabies alongside the powerful Pablo Matera up against New Zealand debutant Liam Squire and the electric Ardie Savea. Although Argentina has some real talent in the back row, the sheer all round X-factor that Savea brings to the All Blacks game should see New Zealand win a tight contest here.  At number eight, another epic battle awaits between seasoned All Black and Captain Keiran Read and Argentina’s Facundo Isa, who we expect to see emerge as one of the players of the tournament when it wraps up on October 8th.  Experience and skill meets raw talent and brute strength in this battle but we hand New Zealand the edge here.

In the half back contest there is once again a solid challenge from Argentina in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo, two of the most reliable and exciting players in the tournament.  However, put them up against New Zealand’s TJ Perenara and the extraordinary Beauden Barrett and it is almost impossible to deny New Zealand a clear advantage here.

New Zealand’s backs are outstanding and we expect plenty of excitement from these five gentlemen on Saturday and as a unit their experience and sheer talent are likely to be just that much better than Argentina’s impressive offering here.  In the centres, All Black newcomer Anton Lienert-Brown has been outstanding and gets another chance to showcase his talents as he starts alongside the proven wrecking ball of Ryan Crotty. Argentina’s Matías Moroni and Santiago González Iglesias are solid counterweights to the New Zealand pair but we still expect to see the All Black duo dictate proceedings here.  On the wings Argentina have Santiago Cordero who has proven exceptionally hard to contain if given any kind of room to run in, and in front of his home crowd we are really looking forward to seeing the youngster really pull out all the stops. However, we must confess to regarding his teammate Ramiro Moyano on the other wing as something of an unknown commodity.  As a result, we feel that it is likely to be all about New Zealand on the fringes in the shape of Israel Dagg and Julian Savea. These two have been in a league of their own all tournament and should ensure that the attacking game out wide belongs to New Zealand on Saturday.  Lastly at fullback, as good as Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet is, you can’t compare him with one of the most gifted players in world rugby at the moment, New Zealand’s Ben Smith.  Tuculet will give as good as he gets, but it will be Smith who will be making the points for New Zealand on Saturday.

Both teams are packing impressive benches, and we are really looking forward to seeing Damian Mckenzie get his first All Black cap, as well as a return to the All Black fold of loose forward Elliot Dixon.  Argentina for us though are packing a slightly more tried and trusted bench in the shape of veterans such as flanker Manuel Leguizamon, loose forward Leonardo Senatore and scrum half Tomas Cubelli.  Furthermore we have always been impressed with Pumas replacement hooker Julian Montoya and in the backs Matias Orlando has had an impressive tournament.  Consequently unlike the first match between these two teams in New Zealand, the All Blacks will need to start strongly and build up a signficant lead early on which to be honest we fully expect them to do.  However, if they struggle to get out of the blocks like they did in the first match and allow Argentina into the game then it could be a very different story as we feel that Argentina has a slight advantage in the cohesion they have on their bench, as opposed to New Zealand’s which has a much more experimental feel to it.  If the scores are close going into the final quarter and both sides start to use their benches, we would even go so far as to say that Argentina could be the team to break the All Blacks remarkable unbroken run.  However, we still feel it to be unlikely even though it won’t be for the want of trying on the part of the Pumas.

New Zealand will be much better prepared than they were in Hamilton and are unlikely to allow Argentina the room to operate that they were given in that first Test. As a result New Zealand should build a strong enough lead early on, which will then leave the Pumas with too much to do.  It should still be an outstanding Test match and for us the highlight of the weekend.  New Zealand to win by 13 points in a match full of drama and excitement from two of the most thrilling teams in Test rugby at the moment!

The only real surprise in Round 4 was Australia’s dramatic resurgence against a brave Pumas challenge.  Australia may not quite be the finished product yet but Saturday’s performance in Perth against Argentina finally saw them mount a challenge worthy of the Wallaby jersey.  Outstanding in defence, with some sparkling attacking rugby at times, the Wallabies built on their performance against the Springboks a week earlier which saw them get many of the basics right which had till then eluded them for most of 2016.  Australia looked focused and much more settled than we have seen them this year and in the first fifteen minutes were a revelation.  To Argentina’s credit, after their initial shock at the Wallabies barnstorming start, they valiantly fought their way back into the match and threw everything they could at a resolute Wallaby defence.  Australia had to use every trick in the book to keep the Pumas in check, but always managed to appear in charge of the scoreboard even if they often had little in the way of possession.  Meanwhile in Christchurch, despite a sparkling start South Africa soon found themselves once more in a downward spiral at the hands of the All Blacks.  New Zealand demonstrated that despite the proud legacy of All Black/Springbok encounters, the present state of rugby affairs in New Zealand is cause for celebration while that in South Africa appears to be one of mounting despair.  As the match wore on New Zealand left an increasingly bewildered and dispirited Springbok side in their wake.  As New Zealand head out on the road for the final two rounds of the Championship the only minor question still to be answered is how well they can reproduce their remarkable form away from home.  Meanwhile South Africa head home to an uncomfortable two weeks of the most unforgiving criticism from their once fervent supporters who appear to have deserted them.  As New Zealand have the Championship sewn up, the battle for standings by Australia, Argentina and South Africa will still provide plenty of interest, but right now our hearts go out to South Africa as of the three they seem to have the most to lose and clearly the biggest mountain to climb.

New Zealand vs South Africa
Final Score – New Zealand 41/South Africa 13
Christchurch

Sadly the result was never in doubt here and we predicted that New Zealand would walk away the victors by at least 25 points and we weren’t far wrong.  South Africa looked initially like they might end up leaving us with as much egg on our faces as our prediction regarding the Wallabies/Pumas game, however it wasn’t to be and a certain All Black by the name of Dane Coles, who for us is a firm fan favourite, had a lot to say about it along with the rest of his exceptional teammates. Although some felt that New Zealand didn’t play their best game – they hardly needed to as South Africa steadily bumbled their way to the final whistle.  We actually had trouble for much of the second half figuring out if there even was a South African side on the pitch such was the quality of the All Blacks opposition at times in this match in the final forty minutes.  There is no question South Africa have now taken over from Australia as the side in crisis in this year’s Rugby Championship, made all the more frustrating for their supporters as despite the problems there is some clear talent in this group of individuals and we were treated to glimpses of it in the first half.  However, the same problems seemed to once more manifest themselves in the second half. Without a clear identity and sense of what you are trying to achieve talent can suddenly become a haphazard and disorganised liability ultimately leading to frustration, desperation and finally panic.  Once this sets in even the best players’ skill sets go out the window and that is very much what we saw in the final forty minutes from South Africa in Christchurch last Saturday.

As already mentioned South Africa started the match with intent and seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves while New Zealand appeared to be getting the measure of the task at hand.  Once more it would be winger Bryan Habana with some quality ball who would get the Springboks a fine try and put some real spirit into the challenge.   A superb offload from South African number eight Warren Whiteley would put Habana where he needed to be in space in front of a wrong footed All Black defence and the rest was history. Twenty minutes in it was 7-3 for the Springboks and there was no question they were playing well.  This however seemed to be the catalyst that New Zealand needed.  Two minutes later in the first of three superb try making offloads Hooker Dane Coles found winger Israel Dagg and New Zealand got their first seven points of the match and restored their lead by 1 point 8-7.  From here the rot started to set in for South Africa.  It must be said that Springbok fly half Elton Jantjies had a poor night of it in Christchurch and a knock on from the restart would be the first of several errors from an otherwise talented player.  South Africa still managed to hold their own until just on the half hour when the All Blacks secret weapon of the match, hooker Dane Coles, made another superb offload to put winger Julian Savea over in the corner.  South Africa just held on to the end of the half only trailing by 15-10 but the warning signs of their impending implosion in the second half were there for all to see.

For the second half it was, as we have seen so often in the Championship so far, all about New Zealand.  Flanker Ardie Savea was proving to be at his destructive best and after helping with fullback Ben Smith’s opening try of the second half would get one of his own shortly thereafter.  However, for us the moment below was the highlight of the match as Hooker Dane Coles showed off some spectacular passing skills to get lock Sam Whitelock over in the corner.  Just watch this pass and you have to marvel at Coles range of skills. At the rate he is going we fully expect to see him lining up kicks for goal before the end of the year just to add another feather to his cap.

South Africa would sadly look a shadow of the side that showed so much promise in the opening 30 minutes of the match until referee Angus Gardiner blew the final whistle.  In the meantime All Black scrum half TJ Perenara would add another seven pointer to New Zealand’s tally to close out a second half that the Springboks played little or no part in. Once again it had been a clinical and ruthlessly complete All Black performance.  Some critics said it wasn’t the best game from the All Blacks and some chinks in their armor were exposed, but we struggled to find any.  Sure fly half Beauden Barrett missed the odd kick but if you look at the number that he did knock over from difficult angles, it is clear that he lacks nothing in ability, it’s just a question of the odd dip in consistency and as always he ran a superb game for New Zealand and was a threat from anywhere on the park.

For South Africa it would have been a long plane ride home to face the knives waiting for them from their supporters and the local press.  Sadly from what we could see there don’t appear to be any quick fixes in the mix any time soon.  South Africa can draw little comfort from the fact that their last two fixtures of the Championship are on home soil.  New Zealand will still be an almost impossible nut to crack and Australia appear to finally be out of the doldrums that have plagued them for much of 2016.  The All Blacks are seemingly peerless at the moment and Australia are starting to find answers.  Sadly none of this can be said for the Springboks in their current state.  There will be a great deal of soul-searching by Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee and his charges over the next two weeks and with supporters and the press calling for heads to roll in South African rugby, we hope that some positives can be found sooner rather than later.  International Rugby without a strong Springbok side is a sad state of affairs indeed!

Australia vs Argentina
Final Score – Australia 36/Argentina 20
Perth

As already mentioned in the comments section of our preview for this match last week, we offer a heartfelt apology to Australia and their supporters for getting our predictions for this match so wrong.  We did put the caveat in that if Australia really stepped it up a few gears there was the foundation for a solid win, we just didn’t think that they could make that kind of quantum leap in the space of a week.  While it wasn’t perfect and there are still a ton of checklists for Australian Coach Michael Cheika and his charges to get through especially in the discipline department, there is no denying that the crisis facing Australian rugby has been averted and the patient seems to be responding well to treatment.  A tough road trip awaits but there is certainly a basis now for some healthy optimism for the Wallabies and their supporters.

For Argentina, it is a case of another match gone begging.  Despite Australia’s lightning start scoring three unanswered tries in the first fifteen minutes, Argentina was very much in this game and fought back magnificently.  However, they will be scratching their heads as to how with the lion’s share of territory and possession (68 and 67% respectively), they ended up losing by 16 points.  In fairness to Argentina once they had recovered from the initial shock of the Wallabies first three tries they appeared the more focused and disciplined side. For the rest of the match however, the few opportunities the Wallabies did get they were just that more effective in turning them into points.  In addition, there is no denying that the Wallabies’ defensive structures were of superhuman proportions as they faced a relentless assault from the Pumas for the remainder of the match.

Australia started this match at a blinding pace and their opening three tries were of the highest quality.  Centre Samu Kerevi would score in the first 45 seconds to make amends for poor technique in giving away a certain try in similar circumstances the week before against the Springboks.  Winger Dane Haylett-Petty would be up next after a superbly timed offload from fly half Quade Cooper.  Finally scrum half Will Genia would seize the day from a brilliantly timed tackle on Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez as the ball was dislodged and the Wallaby scrum half was able to hack it on and ultimately outstrip a scrambling Pumas defence.  We have to say that we have really liked what we have seen from Will Genia so far this tournament and he has improved with every match.  This outing was clearly his best and his efforts were well rewarded with two superb tries.  He along with centre Bernard Foley, has been the catalyst of the Wallabies ability to suddenly start playing some quality attacking rugby.  We even have to admit that fly half Quade Cooper had a fairly decent outing in a Wallaby jersey for a change.  However, Cooper did resort to type towards the end of the match as he was the recipient of a yellow card for a late tackle on Pumas fly half Nicolas Sanchez. Just when we were about to revise our opinion on his ability to go from hero to villain in the blink of an eye Cooper seemed to revert back to type – sorry Quade bit more work to do there yet we’re afraid before we change our tune!

This perhaps highlights the one aspect that will be a concern overall for Australian Coach Michael Cheika after this match. After the Wallabies inital try blitzkrieg, Argentina were allowed back into the match due to a mounting penalty count against the Wallabies, including a yellow card and as the half time whistle sounded Australia had scored no points for the remaining 25 minutes of the half and it had been all about Argentina.

Argentina knew they needed to get the first points of the second half and set about doing just that.  Some initial superb work by Pumas fullback Joaquin Tuculet, saw him break through several attempted tackles and Argentina kept possession enough to eventually get the ball out wide to danger man winger Santiago Cordero and all of a sudden the Pumas were very much back in the match at 21-13 down.  However, Wallaby scrum half Will Genia would once more restore order through a brilliant second try and his half back partner Quade Cooper would provide another sly offload to put Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper through the middle and over the white line.  With the score now at 33-13 for the Wallabies you would have thought the Pumas heads might have gone down with only fifteen minutes left.  No such luck for the Wallabies as the Pumas continued to hammer away at the Australian defences till the final whistle.  Their efforts were rewarded with ten minutes to go, as the outstanding Pumas number 8 Facundo Isa would worm his way to the white line making it 33-20.  Argentina continued to ask questions till referee Wayne Barnes’ final whistle but some spectacular and heroic Wallaby defence ensured that Australia’s castle walls would remain safe for the rest of the match.  Wallaby winger Reece Hodge continued to impress after his debut in this tournament and landed another monster penalty kick with five minutes left on the clock to put the match out of reach of a spirited Pumas side by 36-20 for Australia.  Argentina kept trying until the dying seconds, but were always going to struggle to get back from 21-0 in the first fifteen minutes of the match which had ultimately made it too much of a mountain to climb so early on.

As the final whistle sounded, two exhausted and battered teams staggered off a pitch where they had given it their all for eighty minutes.  Our hearts went out to Argentina for putting up such an epic fight which sadly all came to nought, while we had to pay Australia our respects for that spectacular whirlwind start and then a resolute and at times heroic defence which enabled them to hang on against a ferocious Argentinian response for the remainder of the match.  Australia will want to take a hard look at the penalty count in this match as unless this is addressed, and let’s be honest it continues to be their biggest Achilles Heel, all the good work we’ve seen over the last two weeks is ultimately unsustainable.  Fix that and there is plenty of ground for optimism in Australia. Australia’s scrums and lineouts are finally starting to click, while their defence is starting to look rock solid.  Finally, courtesy of Bernard Foley and Will Genia there is the nucleus of a real attacking threat as the supporting cast of Reece Hodge, Dane Haylett-Petty and Samu Kerevi start to gel.  Add to that the mercurial presence of Quade Cooper and on a good day Australia are clearly capable of mixing it with the best.  However, we can’t help feeling that until we see how this Australian side performs on the road, it is still too early to judge how much progress they have made since that horror start to 2016.

For Argentina it is back to video analysis once again to try to work out how such a strong performance could once more leave them so empty-handed on the scoreboard.  Unlike the game against the All Blacks a week earlier, the Pumas never lost their edge for the full eighty minutes and that is something their supporters must find cause to celebrate even though they found it hard to turn their dominance into points on the board.  Like many we still love watching this team play and feel that there is a depth and quality that is developing in Argentina’s player base at a rate of knots.  Not there yet but getting closer with every match, Argentina continues to rate as an exceptionally challenging team to play and one which come November, is likely to claim a few Northern Hemisphere scalps.  With a home Test against the All Blacks in which they should do well followed by an intriguing contest at Twickenham against Australia for the final match of the Championship, this tournament still has plenty to offer the Pumas and their supporters.  We know we’ll be glued to our television screens for the last two rounds of the Championship!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action.  Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

As we have for much of the Rugby Championship this year we find ourselves with an easy game to call and one that could go either way.  South Africa travel to New Zealand to take on an All Black team that is likely to leave them in their dust, while Argentina travel to Australia to take on a Wallaby side that is possibly in the very early stages of a long-awaited resurgence.  For South Africa most are viewing the forthcoming fixture with the All Blacks not in terms of a potential victory, but more as an exercise in damage limitation.  Few if any are expecting a Springbok win and more are concerned with whether or not South Africa can even be competitive for what promises to be a gruelling encounter.  The match up between Australia and Argentina should be a much more level playing field in terms of a contest.  Argentina will want to make amends for letting the game against the All Blacks slip away from them after showing so much promise in the first fifty minutes.  Australia will want to show that the victory against the Springboks was a sustainable return to winning ways for the Wallabies after a poor run of form since the World Cup.  Of the two contests the one in Perth looks set to balance on a knife-edge while sadly the one in Christchurch should clearly favor only one side as New Zealand look set to have the Championship wrapped up this weekend.

New Zealand vs South Africa
Saturday, September 17th
Christchurch

As mentioned above, we share the common consensus that this is likely to be a long and painful afternoon for South Africa as New Zealand emerge comfortable winners and secure an unassailable position at the top of this year’s Rugby Championship.  Despite being rattled by Argentina last weekend, New Zealand demonstrated their remarkable ability to regroup and adapt by half time and as we all know the rest was history at the expense of a skilled and spirited Pumas side.  What is perhaps concerning for Springbok supporters is that so far South Africa has yet to demonstrate the kind of skills or game plan that is likely to cause the All Blacks much to be concerned about.  South Africa has some exceptionally talented players in the squad who will run out onto the pitch in Christchurch but without a clear game plan or sense of focus in what they are trying to achieve it is sadly all rather academic.  The fault for that lies clearly with the Coaching and Management of South African rugby at the moment and it is unlikely that this can be fixed in the space of a mere week. New Zealand on the other hand boast a phenomenal skill set and the ability to execute not just one game plan but several.  As we saw last weekend the All Blacks may not be invincible but their ability to adapt their game plan to their opponents strengths and weaknesses as a match unfolds is without parallel in International Test Rugby at present.

Up front South Africa should be competitive, though once again we scratch our heads at the back row partnership of Francois Louw and Teboho Mohoje who have done little to impress us this tournament, while exceptional players like Jaco Kriel continue to warm the bench.  The scrum however should still be competitive and Hooker Adrian Strauss and veteran prop Tendai Mtawarira have both acquitted themselves well so far this tournament. We were very pleased to see Vincent Koch get a start in the front row as he is a quality player.  For New Zealand it’s business as usual in the front row with Dane Coles, Owen Franks and Joe Moody.  Simply because we’re such fans of the exceptional Dane Coles we just give New Zealand the edge here but it will be close.  The second row partnership of Eben Etzebeth and Pieter Steph du Toit should provide South Africa with plenty of fireworks.  They may not have the experience of their All Black counterparts Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock but they provide plenty of firepower and competitiveness especially at lineout time.  Furthermore with Etzebeth and du Toit being teammates at the Stormers this familiarity should lend a degree of cohesion to the Springboks forward play that has been lacking in the first three rounds of the Championship.  Having said that though we can’t help feeling that New Zealand’s experience and all round ability in the second row should still give them the edge here.  As mentioned above it’s in the back row where things will fall apart for South Africa up front. Louw and Mohoje are not the right fit and have offered very little in either attack or defence for South Africa.  Jaco Kriel should be getting a start and making an impact from the get go, as opposed to having to come on when too much damage has already been done.  New Zealand’s back row partnership of the electric Ardie Savea and Jerome Kaino, who has been outstanding in the Championship are streets ahead of the South African offering here.  Expect a whitewash especially when you have such a gifted and unpredictable player as Savea thrown into the mix.  It’s at number eight where once more order is restored, as South Africa’s Warren Whiteley has been superb.  However, despite his ability to constantly put his body on the line and lead his team by example, he is up against one of the most composed number eights in the world in the shape of New Zealand Captain Kieran Read.  Both are quality players but it’s Read’s experience that should ultimately see New Zealand attain dominance in a feisty forward battle.

In the half backs South Africa once more offers some genuine talent, but sadly it just doesn’t have the seasoned skill and experience that New Zealand’s pair bring to the table. Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk is an exceptional player but seems to be struggling to figure out what South Africa’s game plan is and as a result his considerable skill set seems wasted at times.  Fly half Elton Jantjies benefits from being de Klerk’s teammate at the Lions where the pair lit up this year’s Super Rugby.  Jantjies has shown some real flair in the tournament and alongside de Klerk could potentially light up any pitch, but seems to also be suffering from a lack of clarity as to what type of game he should be managing for South Africa.  No such problems exist for New Zealand’s fly half Beauden Barrett and scrum half Aaron Smith.  Although Smith didn’t have his best game against Argentina he is still one of the best in the world while Barrett is rapidly emerging as the player of the tournament.  Some have lamented Barrett’s goal kicking at times, however, for us it is not a question of his skills in this department it is simply a matter of consistency.  It is Barrett’s exceptional vision and speed with ball in hand that sets him apart from most fly halves.  His ability to think quickly and create opportunities from nothing has provided New Zealand with some remarkable tries this Championship and we expect to see more of the same on Saturday.  With TJ Perenara waiting on the bench for Aaron Smith and Aaron Cruden for Barrett, as we saw last weekend against the Pumas, New Zealand really does have the most extraordinary depth here which we fear will cost South Africa dearly on Saturday.

Once you get to the backs it suddenly becomes all about New Zealand.  Julian Savea on the wing has returned to some exceptional form and is once more carving giant holes in opposition defences while being almost impossible to bring down.  Israel Dagg on the opposite wing is the perfect complement.  All Black centres Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty are becoming an exceptionally powerful partnership with the latter playing out of his skin last weekend against the Pumas.  When you have the best fullback in the world on your side in the shape of New Zealand’s Ben Smith then you complete a back line that would appear invincible.  Ben Smith’s remarkable skills and cool head were a key part of New Zealand turning the game around last weekend against the Pumas.  Sadly for the Springboks there is just not the same kind of quality available to counter such an impressive All Black unit.  We were impressed by fullback Johan Goosen last weekend against Australia but as the game wore on he tended to kick away far too much possession and if he does that this weekend we shudder at the potential consequences. Winger Bryan Habana’s quality needs no introduction but without support or quality ball he is desperately ineffectual.  The jury is out for us on Francois Hougaard on the opposite wing, as we didn’t see much from him last weekend that made us sit up and take notice.  Sadly the same can be said about the centre partnership of Juan de Jongh and Jesse Kriel even though Kriel has impressed in the past.

We fear that this is going to be a painful schooling for South Africa on Saturday.  Fixtures between these two sides have a proud and noble legacy but the dust-up tomorrow in Christchurch is unlikely to reflect that.  We hope that for South Africa’s sake they are able to put up a brave fight but the result is not in doubt – New Zealand by 25!

Australia vs Argentina
Saturday, September 17th
Perth

When New Zealand is not involved in a fixture in this year’s Rugby Championship the result is much harder to predict and that is very much the case with this match.  Argentina were truly outstanding at times last weekend against the All Blacks and it is hoped they can bring that kind of game to the table in Perth on Saturday.  There have been enough video analyses on the web that have spread like wildfire since last Saturday, that showcase the Argentinians exceptional offloading abilities.  The Wallabies will have done their homework this week and are less likely to be surprised by the Pumas abilities than New Zealand were initially last weekend.  The Wallabies go into this match having got to grips with a lot of the basics that were woefully lacking in the opening rounds of the Championship.  While it wasn’t pretty it was still a much more cohesive and structured performance from the Wallabies against South Africa than we saw earlier this year against New Zealand and the humiliating series whitewash by England.  However, Argentina has a much better attacking game than the Wallabies and it is this area where Australia are going to have to up the ante on Saturday if they really want to silence their critics and prove that the horrors of 2016 are behind them.

Argentina’s forward pack needs no introduction and will provide Australia with the sternest of tests.  Despite the vastly improved scrummaging on display from Australia against the Springboks, they will need to find another gear to match Argentina’s traditional strengths in this area.  The Pumas front row of  props Ramiro Herrera and Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro coupled to inspirational Captain and Hooker Agustin Creevy is an exceptionally daunting prospect.  With the erratic form of their Wallaby counterparts, particularly Captain and Hooker Stephen Moore, we expect to see Argentina have the edge here.  In the second rows, it should be a more even contest with Argentina’s two key playmakers in this department Tomas Lavanini and Guido Petti being absent with injury.  We liked what we saw from new Wallaby second rower Adam Coleman last weekend and despite his occasional lapses in discipline we are giving the edge to Australia here over Argentina, especially if Stephen Moore maintains the accuracy at lineout time which he showed last weekend.  In the back row though, the pendulum swings back to Argentina by the narrowest of margins.  Pumas number eight Facundo Isa has been one of the finds of the tournament and he will be more than a match for Australia’s David Pocock despite the Australian’s greater experience.  In the flankers it should be a battle royale as Manuel Leguizamon and Pablo Matera are devastating in the loose.  So too is Australia’s Michael Hooper and Dean Mumm lends a steady hand when needed.  However, we can’t help feeling that based on what we saw last weekend the Argentine back row trio are likely to cause more damage than their Australian counterparts especially when they have a player with the quality of Leonardo Senatore waiting on the bench.

In the half backs we hand the battle once more to Argentina by a narrow margin. Mercurial Australian fly half Quade Cooper has the potential to surprise but so far has done nothing that has made him really stand out for us and is famous for his tendency to go to pieces when it comes to decision-making under pressure.  His opposite number Nicolas Sanchez has been outstanding by comparison this tournament and should run rings around his Wallaby counterpart.  In the scrum halves the contest becomes much more competitive. We have to admit we like what we have seen from Australia’s Will Genia so far this Championship and he is often the catalyst of the Wallabies’ faltering attacking game at times.  His opposite number Tomas Cubelli starts for the Pumas this Saturday, based on his time with the Brumbies and knowledge of Australian rugby.  A gifted player in his own right he has impressed from the bench all Championship, and will be ably replaced by Martin Landajo at some point in the match.  Australia’s Nick Phipps may impress from the bench given the chance but he tends to be slightly too erratic and unfocused for our liking at times, therefore we hand this contest to Argentina.

It’s in the backs where it should be a real contest and hopefully provide plenty of excitement in terms of an open and free-flowing game.  Despite their quality we’re actually giving Australia the nod here over Argentina.  Argentina’s backs have been electric so far in this tournament with winger Santiago Cordero and fullback Joaquín Tuculet deserving special mention.  However, we are reserving judgement on centres Matias Moroni and Santiago González Iglesias.  Moroni is a big powerful player who is exceptionally difficult to stop and has a remarkable turn of speed, but as a player who creates opportunities we feel that he offers considerably less than Australia’s Bernard Foley.  Foley has made some serious errors not helped by the fact that he is having to learn in the deep end his new position of centre.  However, when the chips have been down for Australia he is usually the player to pull a rabbit out of the hat for the Wallabies.  This ability under pressure and his constant willingness to put his body on the line for his team has earned him the greatest respect as far as we’re concerned.  His counterpart Samu Kerevi had a good game against South Africa despite some basic errors and with continued exposure to Test level rugby will continue to develop the attacking threat that Australia has so often lacked of late.

On the wings Australian newcomer Reece Hodge has really impressed us and to a lesser degree Dane Haylett-Petty.  Whether or not the pair of them are enough to counter the extraordinary threat posed by Argentina’s Santiago Cordero remains to be seen, but if they are we feel they will have the edge over Cordero’s fellow winger Lucas González Amorosino.  In the fullbacks Argentina and Australia are evenly matched. Argentina’s Joaquín Tuculet may not quite be the master of the high ball that the Wallabies’ Israel Folau is, but he has often been much more effective with ball in hand on the attack than Folau.  For us, this is more an issue of Folau getting little or no support once he does set off, but Saturday’s contest will give us a much greater insight into this aspect of the Australian game.  If Australia have got in place the attacking game they need by Saturday, then we are just giving them the edge in the backs over Argentina.  Argentina has plenty of destructive talent here, we just feel that the Australian unit are likely to look slightly more structured provided they get the opportunities and support they have so far been denied.

In short this is going to be an exceptionally close encounter and for us without a doubt THE fixture of the weekend.  If Australia cannot muster an effective attacking plan then Argentina should have a much easier day of it.  However, if the Wallabies do we still just give the match to Argentina by three points as the Pumas forward pack should be slightly more effective in stifling any creativity that Australia may come up with while providing plenty of opportunities of their own.

Despite the result which ended up being well and truly in New Zealand’s favour, we were nevertheless treated to some outstanding rugby last Saturday in Hamilton as the All Blacks were asked lots of difficult questions by Argentina for almost an hour. It was exciting stuff from both teams and at one point the Pumas looked set to make history. Sadly it wasn’t to be as once again the All Blacks rose to the challenge and for the last half hour found another set of gears against an exhausted but brave Pumas side who had given it their all.  Despite the rather one-sided scoreline by the final whistle it had been, especially for the first 50 minutes, a Test match of epic proportions from two quality sides at a blistering pace.  Ultimately as we feared Argentina would be unable to keep the momentum going for the full eighty minutes, but if they play like that against Australia then they surely will give themselves a superb chance of finishing second.  In Brisbane the rugby on display was not quite of the same vintage but it was still a riveting contest that had plenty of thrills and spills.  Two desperate sides, South Africa and Australia, went at each other hammer and tongs but Australia had clearly made more progress with their homework this past week.  South Africa started well but as the match wore on they lost their shape, spirit and composure and as a result their ability over the past few months to come back from behind is finally starting to desert them.  It wasn’t an attractive game, but Australia got the job done with a much-needed win and seem to have addressed many of the aspects of their game that were so woefully lacking in the first two rounds of the Championship.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Final Score – New Zealand 57/Argentina 22
Hamilton

There is no question that the first 50 minutes of this match were some of the best Test Rugby we have seen all year, and the final 30 minutes were no less spectacular even though there was only one team, New Zealand, producing the magic.  Nevertheless the opening three-quarters of this match were quite breathtaking from both sides.  New Zealand would ultimately provide yet another demonstration that highlights the gap between them and the rest of the world, but certainly in the first half they were asked some very difficult questions by a very skilled Pumas side. Argentina showed once more how quickly they are developing an extraordinary brand and style of rugby that is becoming increasingly hard for opposition sides to contain.  Australia despite finally salvaging a win in Brisbane must have watched this match with more than just a mild sense of alarm as they prepare to face the Pumas next weekend.

Argentina came storming out of the blocks and the intensity with which they played clearly caught the All Blacks off guard.  Pumas winger Santiago Cordero split the New Zealand defences in half and got Argentina on the board first and off to 7-0 lead as fly half Nicolas Sanchez got the extra two points, all within the first 3 minutes.  New Zealand would strike back on the ten minute mark, as winger Julian Savea who has seen a complete return to form in this Championship was put into space and Argentina left scrambling to bring the big man down.  In what was a frenetic first twenty minutes from both sides, Argentina came agonizingly close to scoring their second try seven minutes later as Prop Nahuel Tetaz Chaparro found himself in space after the Argentinian pack had shredded the New Zealand defences down the middle of the field.  Unfortunately he spilled the ball and thereafter the All Blacks soon wizened to the Pumas attacking game and closed down the channels that the Argentinians were exploiting so effectively.

New Zealand would start to mount the pressure on Argentina as the first half wound to its conclusion through fine tries from fly half Beauden Barrett and fullback Ben Smith and a penalty kick from winger Israel Dagg.  Although Barrett was not having the most accurate evening with the boot in the first half, he was still continuing to be the playmaker supreme for New Zealand.  However, his Pumas counterpart Nicolas Sanchez was having a solid game of his own and keeping the Pumas well in touch to the point where at the half time whistle the men from Argentina were trailing by less than a converted try and had clearly rattled the All Blacks to the core for the first time this year.

Argentina came out of the blocks in much the same way they did at the beginning of the match and we looked set for another barnstorming forty minutes of Test rugby.  However, sadly at the end of the first ten minutes it was clear that Argentina’s super human efforts were starting to catch up with them while New Zealand looked far more settled and composed as the match clearly started to swing their way.  All Black Coach Steve Hansen made wholesale changes to his lineup and New Zealand soon put a stranglehold on the match as Argentina sadly faded away in the last thirty minutes.

For the last half hour it was all about New Zealand and the Men in Black once more showed their class as they would run in no less than five unanswered tries.  It may have been one-sided but it was spectacular to watch.  One slight concern for New Zealand will have been the loss of flanker Sam Cane to injury but once his replacement Ardie Savea came on there was no looking back.  Although the two have very different styles of play the sheer unpredictability and attacking flair that Ardie Savea brings to New Zealand’s game will leave opposition defences continually on the back foot.  Scrum half Aaron Smith had perhaps not had his best game in an All Black jersey and at times had clearly been rattled by the ferocity and speed of the Argentinian challenge.  His replacement TJ Perenara however rose exceptionally well to the challenge once he came off the bench and was instrumental in providing the platform that allowed New Zealand to pull away from Argentina, showing once more the truly staggering depth of quality that New Zealand have in their player base.

Argentina may have been flat-out of gas as the final whistle blew at 57-22 for the All Blacks but despite the frustration must surely head for Australia with their heads held high.  For a good fifty minutes they turned the World Champions inside out and the All Blacks were for once faced with lots of questions and few answers at times.  Despite that however, Argentina will need to look at how they let New Zealand completely destroy all the hard work they had done in the first hour.  To implode that dramatically in the final twenty minutes even though you are facing the world’s most complete side, is still a cause for concern and will detract from much of the quality of that Pumas performance in the first 50 minutes.  Still we feel sure Argentina will regroup and based on this performance if they can find 80 minutes of the same in Perth this Saturday against Australia, then it could be a long and painful afternoon for the Wallabies.

For New Zealand it once more seems to be business as usual despite the initial scare. Nerves were clearly frayed and vulnerabilities exposed and as a result, as good as New Zealand are, there are a few chinks in their armor.  What this performance did display however is how good New Zealand are at recognising where they are coming up short and how quickly they are able to adapt on the pitch to correct any deficiencies that may be causing them problems.  Most teams are only able to do this by the next match, whereas New Zealand simply need ten minutes in the changing rooms to figure out what the problem is, adapt accordingly and then proceed to run rings around their opponents for the rest of the match.  For us it is this ability, more than just the staggering skill set that the All Blacks possess, that makes them stand head and shoulders above anyone else in Test rugby at the moment and is likely to ensure their continued dominance leading up to the next World Cup in 2019.

Australia vs South Africa
Final Score – Australia 23/South Africa 17
Brisbane

It wasn’t pretty from both sides, but of the two teams, the Wallabies have been more successful in the space of a week in addressing the ills that are plaguing the current state of Test rugby in Australia and South Africa.  Initially, it looked like South Africa were going to be yet another side to show up the frailties of Australian rugby but as the match wore on the Wallabies settled, found their composure and were just that much better at the basics while South Africa slowly started to fall apart after a bright start. How good Australia really are given the weaknesses inherent in the Springboks is hard to judge and the Test against the Pumas next weekend will be a real benchmark by which they can judge their progress. However, Australia’s set piece work at the scrum and lineouts was infinitely better than what we have seen so far from them this year, even though their attacking ability still appears rather incoherent and disorganised at times.  South Africa meanwhile still appear to be without an overall game plan or sense of what kind of rugby they want to play. Furthermore away from home they look more than just a little vulnerable and when under pressure revert to the type of smash and bash rugby that has done very little for them in the last two years tied to a kicking game that denies them possession and seems devoid of any sense of purpose.

South Africa looked the side to make the statement that both sides were desperate to make in this match as the first quarter played out.  Number eight and Springbok Captain in the making, Warren Whiteley, would score a gritty try from a solid team effort in the build up.  South Africa looked the more composed of the two sides and Whiteley’s effort was soon followed up by fullback Johan Goosen. A brilliant intercept by Hooker Adrian Strauss and a chip and chase between centre Jesse Kriel and Goosen, with the latter winning the footrace, would lead to South Africa’s second seven pointer.  We feel we own Johan Goosen an apology after this match as we have been rather disdainful of his efforts in the opening two rounds, but for the first sixty minutes in Brisbane we thought he was one of the more outstanding Springboks on the field.  However, as a result we were disappointed by the end of the match that despite a solid performance for the most part he fell into the Springbok trap of endlessly kicking away possession, usually to his Australian counterpart Israel Folau who will always relish the opportunity of a counter attack.

For Australia although their attacking threat still looked piecemeal for much of the match their defence and set piece work was considerably better than what we have seen from them so far this year.  In general, their scrums looked more solid and there was a dramatic improvement in their lineout work.  Once again Wallaby scrum half Will Genia seemed to be the glue holding some semblance of an attacking strategy together for Australia as he would loop an outstanding pass high over some hapless Springbok defenders to get lock Adam Coleman over in the corner for Australia’s first try.  Once this happened approaching the half hour mark Australian resolve seemed to strengthen while Springbok resilience seemed to start to falter, despite South Africa holding the narrowest of leads by 14-13 at half time.

In the second half the Springbok Achilles Heel of losing composure under pressure and away from home came back to haunt them in no uncertain terms, making the likelihood of them maintaining their status as this year’s comeback kings in Test rugby increasingly unlikely.  Discipline started to crack and lock Eben Etzebeth’s temper once more got the better of him consigning him to the sin bin early in the second half.  What followed was a scrappy affair from both sides with Australia getting the better of the possession stakes but unable to really turn it into points.  Wallaby centre Samu Kerevi almost scored a spectacular try, but by making the basic error of holding the ball in the wrong hand going down the touch-line, he was unable to ground the ball before being bundled into touch by Springbok fullback Johan Goosen.  While it had been a spectacular run by Serevi, such basic errors in execution continue to show up the frailty of Australia’s attack at the moment.

As they have had to for much of the year, the Wallabies once more turned to centre Bernard Foley to somehow find redemption for the team.  Although out of his normal position at fly half and playing at centre, the weight of expectation seems to fall squarely on Foley’s shoulders when the chips are down.  We feel that he gets far too much criticism for any shortcomings he may have in terms of his playmaking, which is unjustified when you consider that the team constantly expects him to produce miracles from nothing. Once again Foley would produce what the Wallabies needed as he single-handedly fooled the Springbok defence with a clever dummy pass, spotted a gap and got Australia’s second five pointer.  Apart from Foley occasionally choosing to kick at seriously inopportune moments, we still feel that he is clearly one of Australia’s most versatile and talented players, without whom Australia wouldn’t have much to work with in terms of developing any kind of coherent attacking threat.  Australia were still too quiet for our liking on the wings and although once again the master of the high ball, fullback Israel Folau rarely had the support to turn any of his counterattacks into genuine strike threats.  As a result Folau gets plenty of air time in matches but little else to show for his efforts.

Australia ground out a much-needed win and if they can somehow develop themselves as a genuine attacking threat by the time they meet the Pumas this Saturday in Perth as well as shoring up their defences then it should be a close encounter.   However, we can’t help feeling that the Pumas are going to offer much more of a coherent threat than the Springboks did and as a result we are still not that clear as to how far the Wallabies have come in fixing the ills that have plagued them so far this season.  Based on the results of this match alone there is room for optimism but this Saturday’s encounter with the Pumas will be a very stern test both physically and mentally.

For South Africa they still seem rudderless when it matters most, despite the talent they have at their disposal.  Another match away from home against Test Rugby’s super heroes at the moment, the All Blacks, is going to provide them with their biggest challenge since the World Cup and one which they sadly look ill-prepared for.  Sadly we can’t help get the feeling that it is going to be a bridge too far and all that lies in wait for them this Saturday is a long and painful schooling.  Some people have likened the Springboks forthcoming meeting with New Zealand this Saturday in Christchurch to waiting outside the principal’s office for a disciplinary hearing.  You know it’s not going to be pleasant, you just don’t know how painful it’s going to be.  Matches between New Zealand and South Africa always seem to produce something special irrespective of mutual form but there is no question that this time around it is South Africa who will have to do some exceptionally serious soul-searching if they are to produce even a glimpse of the pedigree that we have come to expect from such encounters over the years.  Despite that the All Blacks will not be complacent and it is hoped that the Springboks can honor the respect they will be given this weekend by New Zealand.  We wish them well!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action.  Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

As Round 3 of the Rugby Championship gets underway this weekend, New Zealand take on Argentina and look set to consolidate their stranglehold on the tournament. Argentina are likely to give as good as they get but taking on the All Blacks in New Zealand is a task that most would relish but one that few will succeed at. Despite Argentina’s impressive pedigree of late, they are unlikely to derail the All Black express this weekend.  Meanwhile in Brisbane two sides with everything to prove go head to head in probably the most fascinating contest of the weekend.  Australia somehow have to end a six match losing streak while South Africa have to prove to their critics that this is a Springbok side worthy of the name and the legend and not just a bunch of misfiring comeback kings.

New Zealand vs Argentina
Saturday, September 10th
Hamilton

It may be fairly easy to predict the result on this one, but it should still prove to be an interesting match and a spectacle worth watching.  The Pumas have played some exquisite rugby this year at times, but have lacked consistency and staying power at crucial times. As a result it will be difficult for them to upset the 2016 version of the All Blacks which, despite some rebuilding, shows no signs of losing any of the potency that New Zealand has demonstrated in dominating the arena of International Test Rugby for the last five years.  New Zealand at home is always a challenging prospect for any opponent, but on the back of 14 straight wins it is more than just a little daunting.  However, expect this Pumas side to relish and rise to the task at hand.  There will be plenty of spirit and more than just a little flair on display at times and as a result we should be treated to a match well worth watching.  New Zealand however are still for the most part in a league of their own but long gone are the days when they can afford to regard an encounter with Argentina as anything less than the very best in top-level competition.

As a result New Zealand and Coach Steve Hansen are not taking the Pumas lightly by any stretch of the imagination.  They know they are up against worthy opponents in the Pumas who are rising rapidly through the rankings of international rugby and could well be challenging for second place in this year’s Rugby Championship.  Take the threat lightly and New Zealand could end up on the biggest banana peel of their 2016 campaign. New Zealand field essentially the same side that put Australia to the sword in Wellington a fortnight ago.  The essential difference being that Ryan Crotty returns from injury to centre with Anton Liennert-Brown who so impressed on his debut in Wellington warming the bench in this match.  It’s an exceptionally solid, fast and talented set of backs that New Zealand will run out in Hamilton but then they will need to be as Argentina clearly boast the second best set of backs in this year’s tournament.  However, given the defensive skills of the likes of fullback Ben Smith and winger Israel Dagg it is unlikely that the Pumas speedsters are going to get even half as much room as they were afforded by the Springboks.  Meanwhile winger Julian Savea seems to be clearly returning to some devastating form in an All Black jersey and the Pumas are going to have their work cut out in trying to keep the powerful winger in check for the full eighty minutes.

New Zealand’s half back partnership of scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half of the tournament Beauden Barrett should have the edge over their Argentinian counterparts. Barrett in particular is playing some truly exceptional rugby and in addition to conducting affairs for New Zealand like the maestro he is rapidly becoming, he provides plenty of attacking potential that most opposition sides find it almost impossible to read.

Expect fireworks aplenty up front as two very capable forward units engage in battle. Many are already highlighting the contest between the exceptional Puma number eight Facundo Isa and his All Black counterpart Kieran Read as one of the key contests of the match.  Isa’s youthful exuberance and raw talent meets the experience and wisdom of seasoned veteran Read.  We’ve been exceptionally impressed by both units and this should really be a battle royale especially if the Pumas can maintain their composure and discipline against New Zealand for the full eighty minutes.  We always look forward to watching New Zealand hooker Dane Coles in action, especially if he decides to do double duty on the wing which is more than likely.  The lineouts should be well matched contests though with the likes of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock’s experience New Zealand should just get the better of a spirited Pumas challenge.

Argentina are fielding a strong side and should be able to give as good as they get in Hamilton and as a result even though they are unlikely to emerge the victors they should still emerge with their heads held high.  Taking on the best team in the world in their own backyard is an exceptionally difficult task but one which the Pumas are well equipped to take on.  The Argentinian backs are unlikely to get as much space as they got against South Africa in the first two rounds of the Championship, and we would caution them against trying to be as adventurous with ball in hand as they were against the Springboks.  New Zealand are much better at capitalizing on their opponents’ mistakes and if Argentina try to be too clever at times they may well pay dearly for it.  Nevertheless we are still looking forward to seeing the likes of Joaquin Tuculet, Santiago Cordero and Matias Orlando operating at full throttle once more.  Argentina’s half back partnership of Martin Landajo and Nicholas Sanchez is quality through and through but it doesn’t quite have the vision and consistency at the same level of New Zealand’s Barrett and Smith.

As already mentioned in the forwards it’s going to be an exceptionally tight contest but once more over the course of the full eighty minutes New Zealand should just get the edge especially once the All Blacks bench starts to make their weight felt.  For us it’s here where the match will be won and New Zealand is packing a more potent set of replacements than the Pumas.  As a result we’re giving this to New Zealand by fourteen points!  The Pumas will be highly competitive for the first sixty minutes, but will start to tire and as New Zealand makes full use of their powerhouse bench the All Blacks will slowly start to pull away.

Australia vs South Africa
Saturday, September 10th
Brisbane

For us this is the match we’re most looking forward to this weekend.  Australia and South Africa have everything to play for this Saturday and a loss for either will carry with it a painful post-mortem that will go on long after the final whistle.  Australia is in disarray after a six match losing streak, while South Africa have rallied when it matters most to produce some impressive comebacks, but as we have argued all along such luck was bound to eventually run out, as it did in no uncertain terms in Argentina two weeks ago.  For South Africa the issue is less of talent and more about the lack of a cohesive game plan. For Australia it seems to be a combination of both.  As a result we can’t help feeling that between two struggling sides South Africa find themselves in a slightly better position this weekend than Australia.  Australia will have home advantage and South Africa has had an exceptionally poor record away from home over the last few years, and this may tip the scales in the Wallabies favor.  However, we just haven’t seen anything from Australia this year that has really given us the impression they have the mental fortitude to win high pressure games, something which despite their problems the Springboks have managed to do this year, albeit only at home.  In short, a fascinating contest awaits.

One thing we think we can say with certainty is that South Africa are going to dominate the battle up front.  The Wallaby scrum has been a disaster all year and we see no reason for it to be any different on Saturday.  Although the South African scrum has creaked at times and Hooker and Captain Adrian Strauss is under enormous pressure he and prop Tendai Mtawarira have still been more successful than their Australian counterparts this year in the heat of battle.  Australia’s lineouts have been a complete shambles all year and Captain Steven Moore’s accuracy with the throw has been seriously hit and miss. Once again the Springboks have had better success in this department and provided locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager show the kind of tenacity and commitment which they are renowned for then once again South Africa should win the day here.  We must confess to having to scratch our heads over the inclusion of lock Lood de Jager in the starting fifteen for this match at the expense of Pieter-Steph du Toit who once more finds himself on the bench.  Du Toit has eclipsed de Jager in everything he has done this year and adds some much-needed ferocity and power to the Springbok attack which has been sadly lacking at times.

It’s in the back row where Australia should finally assert some dominance in the forward battles.  With the exception of South African number eight Warren Whiteley, South Africa are offering a poor challenge to Australia in the back row.  David Pocock although a quality player is still not quite back to his best while Whiteley should atone for his sub par performance in Argentina in this match to South Africa’s advantage.  It’s in the flankers where Australia should have the clear edge.  We have been saying all year now that we simply cannot understand Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee’s fascination with Francois Louw in this position as opposed to the vastly superior Jaco Kriel who once more finds himself on the bench.  Louw and his back row partner Teboho Mohoje were a complete liability in Argentina two weeks ago with the latter preferring to try to decapitate his opponents by high tackles as opposed to any kind of solid defensive work.  We fear the worst for South Africa again this weekend, with Kriel having to come off the bench and try to work miracles in the final twenty minutes.

In the half backs we are still giving the nod to South Africa.  Although fly half Elton Jantjies and scrum half Faf de Klerk were clearly out of sorts and struggling to adapt to the circumstances they found themselves in Argentina a fortnight ago, they are still a high quality outfit and benefit from being team mates at Super Rugby level where their form has been exceptional.  Although former Reds teammates fly half Quade Cooper and scrum half Will Genia are also familiar running mates, they haven’t played much together recently and Cooper is prone to horrific lapses in concentration under pressure of which there will plenty on Saturday in Brisbane.  Will Genia did make an impression in Round 2 against New Zealand and seemed to be about the only Wallaby along with fullback Israel Folau who had an idea of what was needed to turn Australian fortunes around – it was a just a shame they never got the support they needed.

As for the backs we find it hard to call.  Australia has plenty of talent but everyone seems to be playing out of position with the exception of centre Samu Kerevi and fullback Israel Folau.  Debutant winger Reece Hodges made an appearance in Round 2 off the bench and landed a monster penalty kick so is clearly a potent threat in that department should South African discipline start to falter around the park.  However, winger is not his regular position despite him being a genuine utility back at centre and fullback and occasionally fly half. Bernard Foley continues to operate at centre in this match instead of his regular position at fly half.  Although a winger by trade even Dane Haylett-Petty suddenly finds himself on the right hand touch-line as opposed to his usual left.

For South Africa’s offerings in the backs, we feel this could also be hit and miss.  Stormers centre Juan de Jongh finds himself in the starting fifteen alongside Bulls centre Jesse Kriel. De Jongh and Kriel did little to impress us in this year’s Super Rugby, though Kriel has shown some stellar form in the past especially in this fixture.  Bryan Habana on the wing although of impressive pedigree is only good if he gets some quality ball to work with which has often been sadly lacking of late.  Francois Hougaard finds himself restored to a Springbok jersey on the wing and he could be a player to watch.  However, we find him rather like Australia’s Quade Cooper in terms of form, brilliant at times but occasionally showing a degree of decision-making that defies all logic.  Lastly South Africa’s Johan Goosen at fullback is no match for the incomparable Israel Folau for Australia.  If Folau gets the support he was so often denied two weeks ago then it is going to be a long afternoon for Goosen especially if in desperation South Africa resort to the panic button of meaningless kicking.  South Africa simply have no one of Folau’s pedigree under the high ball.

It’s going to be a tough afternoon for both sides and both Coaches are going to be feeling the heat in no uncertain terms.  In theory Australia should be the winners on home advantage and South Africa’s tendency to implode away from home.  However, we can’t help feeling that Australia’s current disarray is greater than that which a troubled Springbok side find themselves in.  As a result we are going to give this to South Africa by five points!  It’s going to be close at times but we feel that the likes of Pieter-Steph du Toit and Jaco Kriel off the bench may just swing it in favor of South Africa at the death against a disorganised Australian pack.

New Zealand clearly set the benchmark for the rest of the tournament this past weekend and it looks highly unlikely that anyone will catch up with them let alone cause an upset to their potential Grand Slam of the tournament this year, while at the same time the Bledisloe Cup is once more firmly locked away in the All Blacks trophy cabinet for another year.  Australia put up a slightly more impressive performance than the embarrassing effort that marked their opening salvos in the tournament, but still look like a side in the depths of a confidence crisis that it is going to take a superhuman effort to dig themselves out of.  South Africa seemed to join the Australians in the emergency ward as in Argentina they played another appalling first half of Test rugby and then attempted to live up to their mantra of being the comeback kings only to find it backfire horribly.  Argentina continued to impress, albeit against a shaky Springbok side, but got an important win against South Africa that puts them in strong contention for a second place finish.

New Zealand vs Australia
Final Score – New Zealand 29/Australia 9
Wellington

As New Zealand emerged triumphant in a contest few expected them to lose, the alarm bells were ringing across the Tasman Straits in Australia as although the Wallabies looked slightly better than their inept performance of a week ago, they rarely looked a threat particularly on attack and as a result with tough fixtures against South Africa and Argentina still to come Australia needs answers fast.  New Zealand were made to work harder than in the opening fixture but rarely looked troubled and kept Australia pinned in their own half for much of the match.  New Zealand were much more clinical in their approach to this match and as a result although lacking some of the adventurism of the previous week were still able to produce a master class display of winning rugby by a comfortable margin.

New Zealand had changed little for this match with the exception of giving centre Anton Lienert-Brown a Test debut and he rose to the challenge exceptionally well.  Israel Dagg and Ben Smith swapped places in the back line as Dagg switched to the wing and Smith to fullback, but it diminished none of New Zealand’s attacking prowess with Dagg proving to be unstoppable once more with two tries.  Julian Savea finally got a start on the wing as opposed to the bench and seems to have completely regained his form by continuously shredding Wallaby defences and scoring a fine try of his own.  Fly half Beauden Barrett and scrum half Aaron Smith once more orchestrated proceedings to perfection for New Zealand and ran rings around their Wallaby counterparts with Barrett constantly finding ways to deny Australia any kind of rhythm in attack and defence.  The forwards managed to boss the Wallabies around the park and in the set pieces, especially the lineouts.  Hooker Dane Coles, in addition to providing stellar service at the lineouts and in the scrums, was once more seen in his seemingly preferred position as winger as he made a spectacular break down the left wing which almost resulted in a fine try of his own.  In short, we were left wondering once more how on earth anybody is going to stop these guys as New Zealand seems to possess the best backs and half backs in the business and a forward pack that can almost play any position on the field.

As a result Australia were once more left clutching at straws for the full eighty minutes and unlike last week this time emerged tryless in a match where once again they had little if any quality attacking ball.  The big talking point was the controversial decision to start the mercurial Quade Cooper at fly half for the Wallabies.  While we didn’t see him do anything spectacularly awful by the same token we didn’t really see him do anything that advanced the Wallaby cause.  Although Australia’s kicking game was slightly more structured than the previous weekend it still left much to be desired.  Although master of the high ball, Wallaby fullback Israel Folau, had plenty of succesful air time he rarely had the support necessary to turn it into any kind of effective attack.  Meanwhile although their scrums were slightly better the Wallabies rarely provided any real competition for their All Black counterparts and as for the lineouts – well let’s just skip over that part of the Wallabies’ performance as it was another horrendous day at the office.  In short, Australia were slightly better than last week, but it’s really not saying much.  The wooden spoon is looming large in their sights now unless drastic measures are taken and quite frankly we just don’t see it happening.  Although the Springboks are wrestling with demons of their own we still feel they have more to offer in terms of a threat than the Wallabies and as we have seen Argentina seem to have a very clear idea of where they want to go and how to get there – all qualities which are sadly nonexistent at the moment for Australia.

New Zealand march on while Australia somehow has to find something with which to kick-start their Rugby Championship campaign.  From what we have seen of the first two weeks, Australia sadly looks a bit of a lost cause this year, while New Zealand look set to be in a league of their own as the other teams scramble to find some way of tripping up the All Black juggernaut!

Argentina vs South Africa
Final Score – Argentina 26/South Africa 24
Salta

The second match between these two teams provided just as many nail-biting moments as the first encounter the previous weekend.  South Africa once more produced one of the worst first half displays of rugby that we have seen in a long time, only to rally once more in the second half but as we predicted the Springbok ability to produce miraculous comebacks is just not sustainable.  Argentina once more produced the more consistent display of rugby and put on another dazzling show of handling skills at times, with their opening try from fullback Joaquin Tuculet being a case in point.  Perhaps Argentina’s only concern must surely be that they let such an inept Springbok side back into the match in the second half, and as a result had to work far too hard to hang onto a victory they had seemingly secured by the first forty minutes.

To say that the Springboks looked clueless in the first half would be paying them a compliment.  We were surprised at how so many players, even the exceptional scrum half Faf de Klerk, seemed out of sorts and confused over what kind of game they were playing. Their defence was awful, and as usual when in doubt South Africa resorted to kicking away perfectly good possession through a series of meaningless box kicks.  When you have a back line with the pace and strength of Argentina’s this is akin to rugby suicide just as it would be if they had been playing the All Blacks.  In short, the Springboks were awful in the first half and Argentina were the better side by a country mile and thoroughly deserved their 13-3 lead on the back of Tuculet’s outstanding try which had been a total team effort.

In desperation, Springbok Coach Coetzee depleted his reserves early into the second half in an attempt to inject some pace and structure to the game, with lock Pieter-Steph du Toit and flanker Jaco Kriel making the most significant contributions to what was essentially a lost cause.  Winger Bryan Habana seemed one of the few players who had a vague idea of what a try was supposed to look like as he came to his teammates’ aid by scoring a five-pointer reminiscent of his glory days in a Springbok jersey.  Pieter-Steph du Toit also brought some much-needed energy to South Africa’s forward efforts and was rewarded by scoring a superb try which highlighted this exceptional player’s abilities in sharp contrast to the nonexistent Lood de Jager who he replaced.  However, Argentina’s second try showcased their exceptional range of skills as centre Juan Martin Hernandez put a perfectly weighted high kick into the corner for the towering form of flanker Manuel Leguizamon to snatch from the air over the diminutive form of Bryan Habana – a contest the Springbok winger was never going to win.  Springbok discipline had also been an Achilles Heel for them all match particularly in the tackle area – sadly flanker Teboho Mohoje let his team down on numerous occasions as his preferred method of tackling seemed to be clotheslining his opponents around the neck.

It was a scrappy and disturbing performance from the Springboks which will only lead to the most unpleasant of post-mortems by their fans and the press over the coming weeks. South African rugby seems to be heading into the same troubled waters that the Wallabies find themselves in.  As a result the first clash between these two beleaguered rivals a week Saturday will have the highest stakes imaginable, with both Coaches’ heads clearly on the chopping blocks.  Despite this we still feel that South Africa is perhaps in a slightly better position to rectify the problems that are clearly evident for both sides. South African rugby is still blessed with some exceptional talent who for various reasons we have not seen yet this tournament and as result of the current crisis must surely be given an opportunity to prove their worth over the coming weeks.

For Argentina, they must feel pleased with two good performances and some of the exceptional young talent they have at their disposal.  They will need to temper their success last weekend with the fact they allowed an exceptionally inept and at times lifeless Springbok side back into the match and as a result almost paid a heavy price.  If they are genuinely going to challenge for second place this year then they will really need to tighten up this aspect of their game as the All Blacks will leave them in their dust and a wounded Wallaby side will seize any chance they are given.  Still we have to confess that we like most people love watching the Pumas play.  They have an exceptionally exciting brand of rugby which at times displays some quite extraordinary skills which we haven’t seen since the bygone era of “French flair”.  Perhaps “Pumas panache” is set to be the heir apparent to “French flair”? We wish them well on a very challenging tour of Australia and New Zealand and like most people will be glued to our television screens to see how they match up!

Endnote

Once more the fine people at Rugby Montages have produced an excellent video wrap-up of the weekend’s action.  Enjoy and subscribe to their channel so they keep producing more of the same!

On one side of the coin, this weekend’s Rugby Championship action gives us one of the easiest predictions we’ll make all year while on the other one of the hardest we’ve had to call.  The contest this Saturday between New Zealand and Australia in Wellington is likely for all intents and purposes to be a one-sided affair in favor of the Men in Black, with Wallaby supporters desperately hoping for some improvement on the dire display their side offered up last weekend.  Meanwhile in Argentina we are set for a barnstormer, as on current form Argentina and South Africa look set to be duking it out for second place with the Springboks having the edge especially when it comes to closing out big games.  However, the Pumas at home are a daunting prospect and have a habit of providing the Springboks with plenty of nasty surprises should they be caught napping.

New Zealand vs Australia
Saturday, August 27th
Wellington

Many observers leading up to this match feel that although Australia are likely to get another painful lesson from New Zealand, their performance can’t get much worse than the inept performance from the Wallabies we witnessed last weekend.  Looking at the starting line-ups for both teams we sadly have to disagree.  Australia’s selection for this match if anything smacks of desperation.  New Zealand however have stuck for the most part with the side that caused Australia so much heartache last weekend barring one or two minor adjustments.  Given the Wallaby line-up and the fact that they are taking on an All Black side at home brimming with confidence we can’t help feeling that it is all going to go horribly sideways for the Australians in perhaps even more of a dramatic fashion than last weekend.

The main talking point this week has been the selection by Australian Coach Michael Cheika of mercurial fly half Quade Cooper in the starting number 10 berth with regular fly half Bernard Foley being switched to centre, a position he is not familiar with at Test level.  If that’s not the gamble to end all gambles given what is at stake then we don’t know what is. Regular readers of these pages will be well aware of the relative disdain we have for Quade Cooper.  Although he can occasionally, and we emphasise occasionally, produce moments of brilliance, the last time we can actually remember him doing so is back in 2011.  Since then he has made more blunders than we can care to remember both at club level with the Reds and in a Wallaby jersey.  Cooper played no real part in Australia’s efforts at last year’s World Cup apart from a dead rubber against Uruguay as he was seen as far too much of a liability in big games.  Although capable of genius his regular form makes even the most simple aspects of Test Rugby look incredibly difficult and challenging. Having failed to impress at his club Toulon this past year and a disastrous flirt with Sevens rugby, Cooper now suddenly returns to the Wallaby fold as the supposed saviour in waiting.  To us that smacks of nothing more than desperation and the Wallabies suddenly finding themselves clutching at straws.  If he surprises us on Saturday then we will be the first to happily eat these words, but we can’t help feeling that it will be unlikely.  New Zealand know they have an easy target and will put Cooper under the most intense pressure, something which on current form he cracks easily under.  Beauden Barrett must be licking his lips!

That aside what can we expect from Australia?  Australia got totally bossed around by New Zealand in the scrums and at lineout time last weekend.  While we expect a tighter effort from Australia in these areas on Saturday, they’ve been struggling all year with this forward pack and a week is simply too short a time to turn things around.  However, we do like the look of Adam Coleman and Kane Douglas as a lock partnership, even though they are no match for the powerhouse New Zealand pair of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Nevertheless, we still expect to see Australia to be much more competitive here.  One welcome inclusion in the forwards department however for the Wallabies is the return to the starting lineup of flanker Scott Fardy.  Despite his poor form this season with the Brumbies at Super Rugby level, Fardy seems to bring something different when he pulls on a Wallaby jersey and as such we have always felt he is one of Australia’s most underrated and undervalued players of this current Wallaby generation.  Combined with fellow flanker the irrepressible Michael Hooper, Australia should have a powerful and competitive back row shored up by number eight David Pocock.  Pocock himself has been struggling with form since his return from injury but given his outstanding form last year, it is only a question of time until this player starts hitting his straps again.

It’s from the half back point onwards that Australia starts to show its weaknesses.  Will Genia at scrum half singularly failed to impress last weekend and we’ve already said enough about fly half Quade Cooper who will have a giant target on his back all afternoon. While regular Wallaby starting fly half Bernard Foley did have a bit of an uncharacteristic shocker last weekend, we still feel he is a much more reliable and committed player than Cooper.  Add to that he is now being played out of position and we can’t help feeling that his confidence from the previous weekend is now well and truly out the window. Australia’s complete lack of a real attacking threat last weekend was painfully exposed. Winger Adam Ashley-Cooper although one of our top-rated Wallabies looked out-of-place not helped by the fact that he and fellow winger the impressive Dane Haylett-Petty had no quality ball to work with.  We can’t see much difference taking place this weekend.  Israel Folau was also kept strangely quiet and ineffective last weekend, and we have often argued that if you are going to gamble with a centre field change then it should be Folau at centre rather than Foley.  Folau was one of the few success stories of the Waratahs Super Rugby campaign this year when he played at centre.  Lastly centre Tevita Kuridrani had a shocker last weekend, but his replacement this weekend Samu Kerevi despite the excitement in Australia about this player is just not a reliable enough player for our liking especially in defence, and we feel that Australia will pay dearly for a weak and untested centre field pairing this weekend.

As for New Zealand it is very much business as usual this weekend with few changes other than the Test debut for Centre Anton Lienert-Brown.  We’ve always liked the look of this player at Super Rugby level with the Chiefs and feel that he is more than likely to deliver the goods this weekend.  New Zealand packs a powerhouse forward pack with the irrepressible Hooker Dane Coles leading the charge and seeming to suffer no loss of pace and power after suffering an injury at the end of the Hurricanes Super Rugby campaign – in short one of the toughest competitors out there.  The scrum and lineouts should once again be superb platforms for New Zealand in terms of dominating possession.  The breakdown battles though should be a bit more competitive with Australia’s loose forwards being slightly more up to the challenge than last weekend, that is until the All Blacks secret weapon and force of nature flanker Ardie Savea comes off the bench.

New Zealand’s half back partnership is infinitely superior to anything that Australia can offer up and as such scrum half Aaron Smith and fly half Beauden Barrett should comfortably dictate the pace of the game all afternoon.  Beauden Barrett for us has really been a revelation and in our opinion is about to eclipse the legendary Dan Carter in terms of sheer ability.  An exceptional player at the beginning of what is likely to be an incredible Test career.  Winger Julian Savea finally started to show the form that has made him such a sensation and we expect more of the same this weekend.  Ben Smith switches to fullback with Israel Dagg moving to the wing, but this gifted pair seems fairly interchangeable so there should be no concerns there.  In the centres we’ve already mentioned the welcome inclusion of newcomer Lienert-Brown and think that Malakai Fekitoa has more than enough pace and power to cause endless headaches for his Australian counterparts on Saturday.

In short, a New Zealand victory is easy to call, it’s by how much that is the hard part.  If Australia manages to hold their composure, and Quade Cooper in particular, then we expect a better performance than last weekend and as such New Zealand to win by 15 points.  We don’t think that Australia can possibly be as bad as they were last weekend, however, if Australia and Cooper implode as we suspect they will away from home, then New Zealand to walk away the victors by 25 points!

Argentina vs South Africa
Saturday, August 27th
Salta

This fixture is the much harder contest to call and as a result the one we are anticipating the most this weekend.  With the All Black/Wallaby clash essentially being a one-sided affair, the dust-up in Salta between the Springboks and Pumas will provide us a much clearer idea of where these two stand in the pecking order of Test rugby.  South Africa have had more than their share of scares since June.  Ireland rattled them to the core at the beginning of their Test season causing them to have to dig deep and produce the comeback performance of the June Test calendar.  South Africa’s opener in the Rugby Championship provided yet more drama as the Springboks suddenly found themselves with their backs against the wall as a feisty and slick Argentinian side completely outplayed them for a full sixty minutes.  Argentina for their part have everything to prove after their Super Rugby side the Jaguares often entertained but rarely produced results and, for the most part, a lacklustre June series by the Pumas against Italy and France.  The Pumas dominated the Springboks for a good sixty minutes in the Rugby Championship opener against South Africa but their inability to close out big games came back to haunt them in the most dramatic fashion as South Africa scored 17 unanswered points in the final 10 minutes to snatch the victory.

South Africa have proved in the last two months that comeback rugby seems to be their forte but their supporters must surely be hoping that this impressive ability is not going to become their stock in trade.  There are essentially no changes to the Springbok side that at times struggled against a Pumas side playing at breakneck speed.  The main change is the inclusion of prop Vincent Koch in the starting line-up as opposed to being on the bench. Although this change has been forced by injury we welcome it as Koch was one of the few standout players of the failed Stormers Super Rugby campaign, and as a result up against a highly competitive Pumas scrum Koch should add some much-needed stability.

We’ve already mentioned that we feel that flanker Francois Louw’s inclusion in the starting XV is a poor decision by Coach Alastair Coetzee.  His form simply doesn’t merit it whereas Jaco Kriel who is once more on the bench for this match has been one of South Africa’s most exciting and powerful players all year.  South Africa simply can’t allow themselves to get bossed around up front by the Pumas in this match like they did last weekend.  With the Pumas being at home they are more likely to get a significant lead early on if the Springboks can’t contain the likes of Facundo Isa and Pablo Matera up front. In short, it is going to be one hell of a contest up front.  Locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jaeger are going to have to be at their best to contain their opposite numbers from Argentina Tomas Lavanini and Matias Alemanno.  With Pieter-Steph du Toit waiting on the bench South Africa have some solid cover in the lock department but then so do Argentina with the exceptional Guido Petti.  In the battle of the benches both sides have their strengths but we’re giving Argentina the slight edge here.  At number eight Warren Whiteley was outstanding in orchestrating South Africa’s comeback last weekend and we expect more of the same again from him up against the equally impressive youth and strength of Argentina’s Facundo Isa who we have a hunch may emerge as one of the players of the tournament.

In the half backs, a battle royale is set to take place.  Quality meets quality even though South African fly half Elton Jantjies wasn’t quite the reliable figure last weekend that he has been for his Super Rugby franchise the Lions this season.  Despite that some of his breaks and ability to put players in space were still exceptional even if at times his kicking game deserted him.  Springbok fly half Faf de Klerk however was exceptional last weekend and at times singlehandedly turned around the fortunes of his struggling teammates.  We think his ability in defence and attack is rapidly starting to rival that of All Black great Aaron Smith.  The sight of the diminutive de Klerk single-handedly bringing down Argentinian giants like Lavanini and Leguizamon was the stuff of legends.  He is an utterly fearless competitor and his commitment deserves the greatest respect.  Argentina on the other hand have an impressive duo in the shape of fly half Nicolas Sanchez and scrum half Martin Landajo.  These two players work exceptionally well together and their speed and pace of distribution is outstanding.  Landajo’s replacement last weekend Tomas Cubelli simply picked up where Landajo left off once he came off the bench.  Sanchez has an exceptionally reliable boot and his vision in putting winger Santiago Cordero in space for Argentina’s second try last weekend summed up his ability to think quickly and accurately.  Like their Springbok counterparts these two are equally fearless in attack and defence and the contest between these four this weekend should be riveting.

It’s in the backs where we think that at home Argentina will have the clear edge.  Although the Springboks boast the exceptional talent of Super Rugby Lions heroes winger Ruan Combrinck and centre Lionel Mapoe, we weren’t overly impressed by what we saw otherwise last weekend.  Mapoe and Combrinck are worth their weight in gold, but the rest of South Africa’s back line was often found lacking last weekend.  Despite his try we thought fullback Johan Goosen rarely did much right last weekend, and winger Bryan Habana just looked tired and out of form.  Centre Damian de Allende missed far too many tackles last weekend and looked exceptionally one-dimensional for most of the match. For us he is far too hot and cold to be a consistent starter for the Springboks.  However, the backs overall seem to be South Africa’s biggest issue at the moment with few if any players apart from Combrinck or Mapoe standing out.  The one notable exception is Rohan Janse Van Rensburg the Lions centre who was truly outstanding in this year’s Super Rugby, yet for some strange reason seems to be completely off Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee’s radar.

Argentina’s back line on the other hand is exceptionally solid and as evidenced last week, a very cohesive unit.  Centre Matias Orlando’s try was one of the top highlights of last weekend’s action.  The big physical winger Manuel Montero is very hard to bring down and centre Juan Martin Hernandez is one of Argentina’s most gifted players.  Add to that the electric pace and elusiveness of winger Santiago Cordero and the reliability and vision of fullback Joaquín Tuculet and you have a complete set of backs that are going to be very hard to stop on Saturday in Salta.

It’s going to be tight and incredibly close and should be the encounter of the weekend between two evenly matched and very talented teams.  At the moment these two sides are clearly in the race for second place in this year’s Championship and this weekend should give us a fascinating insight into how the rest of their campaigns should pan out.  For us though we are going to just give this one to Argentina by the slimmest of margins in a real cliffhanger of a match.  However, at home it should just be Argentina’s day by two points amidst plenty of fireworks!

The Rugby Championship got off to a thundering start this year after its abbreviated format from last year. New Zealand destroyed last year’s champions Australia and the Wallabies were handed an embarrassing lesson in basic rugby skills as they were made to look utterly clueless for most of a painful 80 minutes.  Meanwhile in South Africa the Springboks struggled against an Argentinian side that looks set to return to the spectacular form they showed last year.  However, the Springboks made a remarkable comeback in the final ten minutes setting up an epic return fixture in Argentina next weekend.  The action was fast and furious in both matches and considering this was only the opening shots in this competition it looks like we are set for an epic couple of weeks of outstanding Test rugby!

Australia vs New Zealand
Final Score – Australia 8 – New Zealand 42
Sydney

While there were very few who doubted an All Black victory, we imagine that many people, ourselves included weren’t quite predicting the wholesale slaughter that took place in Sydney last Saturday. The All Blacks put on a mesmerizing display in the first half that totally eclipsed their Australian rivals and made the Wallabies look like rank amateurs by comparison.  So much work was done by New Zealand in the first forty minutes and at such blinding speed that there is no doubt that they took their foot off the gas slightly in the second half allowing Australia to get a much-needed consolation try.  However, even at a leisurely pace New Zealand would still only allow Australia five points in 40 minutes while scoring a further ten of their own.  In short, the Wallabies looked clueless at the hands of a New Zealand side just getting into their rhythm. Some felt that New Zealand were’nt quite playing at their full potential but our answer to that is heaven help the rest of the world once they do.  New Zealand are warming up nicely in the opening round, while Australia are thrashing around on the ER’s operating table in a critical condition with five matches left to go. Based on Australia’s performance in this match, made worse by the fact it was in front of a home crowd, the prospect of travelling across the Tasman Straits this week to take on the All Black powerhouse in their own backyard must be the stuff of nightmares.

With the likes of winger Adam Ashley-Cooper and centre Matt Giteau returning to the Wallaby fold, you felt that perhaps their woes in the series against England might start to get reversed.  Sadly it wasn’t the case and to be honest none of the Wallaby European returnees made much of a difference to what was essentially a lost cause.  Scrum half Will Genia and centre Matt Giteau made relatively little impact on the match, the latter sadly due to injury which essentially has ended his international career.  What’s more given Australia’s total implosion against the best team in the world right now by a country mile, New Zealand, England’s series victory against Australia in June suddenly gets put into a slightly different perspective especially if Australia emerge as the wooden spoon holders from this year’s Rugby Championship.

Looking at this match the only real positive we could take from Australia’s performance compared to their efforts against England in June, was that the woeful discipline that bedevilled them in the English Tests seems to have been addressed somewhat.  However, Australia were still completely bossed around in the scrums and at lineout time, coupled with the fact that their set piece and breakdown play was generally so poor that they were starved of any kind of possession throughout the match.  Add to that some dreadful execution, particularly in terms of handling and passing skills, an utterly pointless kicking game and little if any answer to New Zealand’s outstanding rush defences, and Australia sadly looked a side bereft of ideas and some basic skills that are a prerequisite to play at this level.

New Zealand on the other hand particularly in the first 40 minutes came screaming out of the blocks leaving a bewildered Australia clutching at straws. Although New Zealand looked slightly over exuberant at times and as a result some of their efforts although exceptionally ambitious and skilled lacked some of the finesse we have come to expect from All Black sides of recent years, the point was that they were trying and constantly seeking to create opportunities and capitalise on the confusion of their opponents.  While some of the finishing wasn’t quite there for New Zealand, they played the first half at such breakneck speed and showcased a truly dazzling set of skills that by the time referee Jaco Peyper called time on the first half, the All Blacks had already got the job done making the second half mere window dressing on an emphatic win.

From New Zealand’s point of view there were a couple of standout performances in a complete team effort.  Fly half Beauden Barrett orchestrated New Zealand’s efforts magnificently and has surely made the number 10 shirt his for the rest of the tournament topping it off with a superb individual try. Dane Coles who as always put in a truly epic performance that lacked nothing in terms of physicality despite him nursing a rib cartilage injury, deserves special mention as the hooker seems to be able to walk over broken glass without blinking an eyelid in service to his team, and was rewarded for his heroics by a fine try of his own. Waisake Naholo was as always in fine form on the wing and it is hoped the injury he sustained in scoring his own try will not preclude him from proceedings this coming Saturday. Lastly it was great to see Julian Savea return to his barnstorming best on the wing when he came off the bench and flanker Ardie Savea’s brief contribution towards the end of the match showed just what a truly devastating impact player he is.

New Zealand are unlikely to rest on their laurels for the return fixture this Saturday in Wellington and are likely to simply fine tune the finishing needed and ramp up the intensity yet another notch if that is actually possible.  For Australia, divine intervention and a belief in miracles would appear to be the order of the day as they prepare for an even tougher encounter than this past Saturday.  Although they are unlikely to be as dire as they were this past weekend, the level of injuries they picked up in Sydney and the massive amount of work required to get them to be even mildly competitive against the All Blacks will be a significant challenge for beleaguered Wallaby Coach Michael Cheika. While you can’t really see them pulling off a win in Wellington, they desperately need to restore some pride and integrity to the Wallaby jersey in order for them to be a worthy challenge for their remaining opponents South Africa and Argentina, who themselves are likely only going to get stronger as the competition builds to its conclusion in early October.  There is enough talent in the Wallaby camp that I doubt they will be down and out for long, but whichever way you cut it, it’s going to be a long and painful couple of months for Australia.

South Africa vs Argentina
Final Score – South Africa 30 – Argentina 23
Nelspruit

Unlike the one-sided competition between Australia and New Zealand, this match had sparks aplenty with both sides seeking to make a statement. South Africa were keen to prove that the upset Ireland almost gave them in June was a distant memory, while the Pumas sought to return to the form that made them such an entertaining and impressive unit in last year’s World Cup. Argentina’s entry into the Super Rugby competition this year proved to be a let down, especially as the Jaguares franchise was for all intents and purposes a mirror image of the Pumas starting XV.  Reunited with Coach Daniel Hourcade in June against Italy and France, the Pumas had moments of brilliance but overall rarely provided much to get excited about.  South Africa proved themselves to be the kings of comeback Test Rugby in the June series against Ireland, after an embarrassing opening defeat to a fourteen man Irish squad in the opening Test.  After a dire first half in the second Test against Ireland, Springbok Coach Alastair Coetzee brought his Super Rugby Lions players off the bench and the Springboks were suddenly reborn and subsequently never looked back for the remainder of the Series.

There was a healthy sprinkling of Lions players in the Springbok starting lineup for this match, most notably centre Lionel Mapoe, scrum half Faf de Klerk, number eight Warren Whiteley, fly half Elton Jantjies and winger Ruan Combrinck and once these players hit their straps they didn’t disappoint.  Let’s be honest South Africa only looked good in the first ten minutes and the last ten minutes of this match.  The middle sixty minutes were dominated by an Argentinian side that is just warming up. The Pumas two tries were for us arguably two of the best of the weekend’s action.  The Springboks will be concerned that their strength seemed to really only come out when their backs were against the wall.  A situation they are unlikely to come up against Australia, but if they let New Zealand get ahead like they did with the Pumas, then their chances of salvaging the match are likely to unravel in the most dramatic fashion as the All Blacks simply won’t allow them those kinds of opportunities.  Furthermore, the Pumas at home next weekend in front of their fervent supporters are also likely to be less forgiving of the Springboks mistakes than they were in Nelspruit.  Lots of work lies ahead for Coach Alastair Coetzee and his squad over the coming week but results are clearly possible with the talent at his disposal.  Hopefully for the Springboks the mistakes made last Saturday can be put down to experience and addressed in time for the monumental two clashes with the All Blacks.

For the Pumas, the loss will be a bitter pill to swallow especially as they looked to make history by winning two back to back contests with the Springboks on South African soil. Right up until the 70th minute it looked like that was going to be the case.  Although plenty of mistakes were made by both sides it has to be said that overall the Pumas looked much sharper in terms of execution than the Springboks and seemed to have a much more cohesive game plan that made more effective use of their talents and strengths.  The Springboks simply made far too many errors and as a result often looked the less composed of the two sides.  Some of the Pumas passing and offloading was truly exceptional and the passage of play that ended with centre Matias Orlando’s try was for us one of the most memorable moments of the weekend.  Nicolas Sanchez’s pinpoint kick through the gap in South Africa’s scrambled defences to put winger Santiago Cordero into space for the second Pumas try was yet another demonstration of the kind of classy and slick play that this Argentinian side can produce.

Pumas number eight Facundo Isa was a force of nature and wrought havoc amongst Springbok defences for the full eighty minutes and as a result is an exceptionally exciting prospect for the Pumas future development as he is a mere 22 years old.  The Pumas forward pack tightened up on a lot of the disciplinary problems we witnessed in the Jaguares Super Rugby campaign, and while there is still work to do here there is no question that there are some real giants of the game here in the shape of locks Tomas Lavannini, Guido Petti, flanker Pablo Matera and the always inspirational hooker and Captain Agustin Creevy.  Nicolas Sanchez and Martin Landajo were exceptional as a half back pairing and Landajo’s replacement at scrum half Tomas Cubelli also made a huge impact.  Add to this a solid, quick and highly talented back line and Argentina looked very much like the finished product for much of this match. The ability to close out big games like this which has been an Achilles Heel for the Pumas in the past ultimately came back to haunt them, but with five matches still to go it is likely that the Pumas stand a chance of claiming one or two big scalps before the tournament ends in October.

As for the Springboks despite far too many errors initially, once they settled into their rhythm they produced 12 minutes of sublime comeback rugby at the end of the match. For their supporters the hope is surely that the remaining fixtures in the competition will be less about comebacks, as inspirational as they are, and more about the dominance that a group with this much talent should be producing.  Man of the Match Springbok scrum half Faf de Klerk deserves special mention as apart from the odd error, he produced a stellar display of rugby which Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, his All Black counterparts, will surely have taken notice of.  De Klerk is the epitome of the pedigree of Springbok rugby – an utterly fearless competitor who wears his heart on his sleeve.  His obvious enthusiasm and love of the game coupled with the fierce pride and devotion to the jersey is a privilege and pleasure to watch.  Almost impossible to contain and in the thick of every passage of play he is an enormous asset to this Springbok side.  His ability to successfully tackle players twice his size is rapidly becoming the stuff of legends, just watch replays of this match to watch him bringing down Pumas giants like Leguizamon and Lavanini and you’ll see what we mean.  His speed, vision and exceptional distribution of ball at pace is outstanding and will keep us glued to our television screens for the duration of the tournament.

Once the Springboks started to settle their strengths rapidly became apparent. Their scrum started to solidify especially once prop Vincent Koch was introduced into the mix. The lock partnership of Lood de Jaeger and Eben Etzebeth, especially Etzebeth, brought a devastating physical presence in both attack and defence, and Pieter-Steph du Toit brought the edge that really cemented the Springbok comeback in this department once he came off the bench.  It was the flanker partnership where there were concerns which were really only rectified once Jaco Kriel came off the bench for Francois Louw who in our opinion is well past his sell by date in a Springbok shirt.  It is blatantly obvious as it has been all year that Jaco Kriel should be getting a starting berth for every Springbok game at flanker. Despite his critics and the unfortunate “quota” debate surrounding his inclusion we had to admit that Teboho Mohoje had a very respectable game and certainly performed much more effectively than his back row partner Louw.  Number eight Warren Whiteley was outstanding and his match winning try was symbolic of the inspiration that he and his Lions teammate scrum half de Klerk provide to this Springbok team – future Captain material if ever there was one and a credit to his country and the jersey.

In the backs Ruan Combrinck provided good value for money on the wing, but despite his excellent try was prone to a few uncharacteristic errors we are not used to seeing from him.  We’ll put it down to the conditions and feel fairly confident we are unlikely to see the same mistakes next week in Salta from this exceptional player.  Lionel Mapoe had a good outing at centre but often lacked the support he needed and occasionally tried to do too much on his own.  We thought his centre partner Damian de Allende had a poor outing and for us the jury is still out on this player – we’d actually prefer to see Jesse Kriel in his place.  De Allende is too hot and cold for our liking and missed far too many tackles in this match.  We couldn’t help feeling the same about Johan Goosen at fullback, despite his try which for all intents and purposes was the work of that man Faf de Klerk operating at full throttle as he did all match. Goosen made far too many errors for our liking, but there again so does the other Springbok fullback stalwart Willie le Roux.  South Africa does seem to be struggling to find the right answers to the fullback question at the moment.  On the wing as well we feel that Habana is also not the way forward despite his illustrious history in a Springbok jersey. As a result the Springbok back line looks far less composed and cohesive than their Pumas counterparts and that will surely be a concern for Coach Coetzee going into the return fixture in Argentina this weekend.  Last but not least but hopefully only a minor concern, fly half Elton Jantjies had moments of brilliance but just as he was in the Super Rugby final, still seems a way off the remarkable form that brought his Super Rugby franchise the Lions so much success this year.

In conclusion an epic encounter lies ahead next weekend in Argentina between these two exciting teams.  Both sides are rebuilding though despite the loss on the basis of this first encounter, Argentina seem to have a better idea of where they want to go.  Although still a long way from coming close to challenging the All Blacks these two sides clearly have a shot at second place in this year’s Championship, with South Africa probably being slightly better positioned to go the distance.  Either way these two sides are going to provide entertainment by the bucket load over the coming weeks and we for one can’t wait!

Endnote

To wrap up this week’s instalment we give you this outstanding video summary of this week’s enthralling action provided by the talented folks at Rugby Montages.  Enjoy!